Friday, December 11, 2015

Review of Christopher Fowler's Bryant & May and the Burning Man

Bryant & May and the Burning Man, by Christopher Fowler (Bantam, December 15, 2015)

The Peculiar Crimes Unit’s decrepit offices are located in the City of London, that ancient square mile that was home to London’s original settlement and is now jammed full of the skyscrapers housing the metropolis’s financial institutions.

Hardly anybody lives in the square mile anymore, which makes the P in PCU seem like it should stand for Precarious at times. The PCU has very little in the way of modern technology; nothing like the kind of assets that would allow it to combat the financial crimes that are headquartered in the square mile.

But as this twelfth book in the series begins, a case arises that is right up the PCU’s alley. Financial shenanigans in the banking world have led to increasingly large and violent protests in the City. One bank is firebombed, killing a homeless man dossed down under cardboard boxes in its entryway.

The PCU suspects this was murder, not accident, and their conviction is cemented when there are more murders; seemingly unconnected killings, executed in bizarre ways reminiscent of punishments common in more ancient times. As each day passes, demonstrations against the bankers and other presumed-to-be-corrupt wealthy people escalate. Arthur Bryant suspects that the mystery killer will take advantage of the upcoming Halloween and Guy Fawkes Day to pull off even more spectacular murders.

As always, the PCU gets no support––or even respect––from other police units. This time, their particular nemesis is Darren “Missing” Link, who hamstrings them, ostensibly to prevent their interference with an ongoing fraud investigation. Like everybody else, all Link sees in the PCU is a ragtag bunch of misfits, led by the spectacularly untidy and decidedly eccentric old man, Bryant. Like the rest of the force, he just doesn’t understand that Bryant’s encyclopedic knowledge of the history of London is what will make all the difference in the investigation.

Each member of the PCU faces a crossroads in this book, which gives it a bittersweet, even elegiac feel. After 12 books, the PCU members are like old friends. I hope to see them again, but if not, I wish them well and thank Christopher Fowler for letting us know them.


Monday, December 7, 2015

Gift Shopping for Books: The Golden Age

No matter what winter holiday you celebrate, this is the gift-giving season. This week, I'll give you suggestions for some book lovers on your list. We'll start today with so-called Golden Age mysteries, which came into prominence during the 1920s and '30s. Some of the best-known Golden Age authors are Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Michael Innes, Edmund Crispin, Margery Allingham, Georgette Heyer, Josephine Tey, John Dickson Carr, and Patricia Wentworth. (Sister Mary mentions more in her November 28, 2015 post.) If you're not personally familiar with these writers, don't dismiss them out of hand as being too old-fashioned to bother with. Golden Age books can be witty or charming and are also great for readers of more modern traditional mysteries inspired by the Golden Age, such as those by Simon Brett, Peter Lovesey, and Sarah Caudwell, in which violence is mostly off-stage. (We'll talk about traditional mysteries on another day.)

There are many terrific books a Golden Age fan may not have read, and you can find them in a good used bookstore or online. On the list below, I've starred books for people who have oodles of Golden Age mysteries under their belts; they probably haven't read these unless they're connoisseurs of the period. Needless to say, I haven't tried to be comprehensive. If you want more recommendations, I'm happy to supply them. I've also included some other gift suggestions, if you want an accompaniment for your book.

Margery Allingham
More Work for the Undertaker features Albert Campion and the eccentric Palinode family, now reduced to poverty and further reduced by murder.
Accompany with: a word game such as Scrabble (poison-pen letters feature in this book)

Francis Beeding
*Death Walks in Eastrepps recounts one unexpected murder after another in a quiet English coastal village, Old Bailey proceedings, and a surprise ending.
Accompany with: trivets in the shape of fish or boats

Nicholas Blake
Shell of Death (APA Thou Shell of Death), set on Christmas weekend in an English country house, involves a suicide staged to look like murder.
Accompany with: the vintage card game Authors (Blake is the pen name of poet Cecil Day-Lewis, father of actor Daniel Day-Lewis)

Agatha Christie
And Then There Were None (APA Ten Little Indians) features strangers on a private island dropping like flies, one by one.
Accompany with: something that also disappears, one after another, such as a plate of homemade cookies (Maida Heatter's recipes are sensational) or some delicious artisan chocolate from Portland, Oregon, Seattle or New York City. (If you were born in Europe, clutching French candy or a Swiss chocolate in your hand, you don't need help from me.)

John Dickson Carr
The Three Coffins (APA The Hollow Man), a "locked-room" mystery, contains Dr. Gideon Fell's famous "Locked-Room Lecture."
Accompany with: a charm bracelet that carries a tiny key; a lockable box for little treasures

Cyril Hare
Tragedy at Law takes place as Judge Barber receives threatening letters while traveling the English Southern Circuit and is told from the viewpoint of down-at-the-heels lawyer Francis Pettigrew.
Accompany with: some beautiful stationery and a snazzy pen
[Note: Sister Mary previously mentioned Hare's An English Murder, a winter must-read due to its snowed-in English country house setting. I'm mentioning it again here because I love it, and it would be perfectly accompanied by a pair of warm slippers or a beautiful little snow globe.]

Georgette Heyer
No Wind of Blame assembles an oddball cast of characters at the English country house of a good-natured, wealthy American widow and then kills off the most likely candidate for being murdered.
Accompany with: a bottle of Russian vodka (one of the characters is an iffy Russian prince)

Richard Hull
*The Murder of My Aunt is told from the viewpoint of a satisfactorily unpleasant young man who plots to kill his aunt, no great prize herself, for an inheritance.
Accompany with: a board game that requires strategy, such as Monopoly or Risk

Michael Innes
Hamlet, Revenge! involves an amateur production of Hamlet during a house party at the Duke of Horton's palatial home, and a young Inspector John Appleby investigates the murder of one of the players.
Accompany with: a DVD of Hamlet, of course

Paul McGuire
*A Funeral in Eden (APA Burial Service) features a stranger found with his head bashed in on an idyllic island beach.
Accompany with: ingredients for piña coladas, tiny paper umbrellas, and appropriate glasses

Dorothy L. Sayers
Murder Must Advertise takes place at a London advertising agency full of clever ad writers.
Accompany with: a T-shirt carrying a famous advertising jingle or the maker's name on the front
The Nine Tailors, an exceedingly atmospheric book, finds Sir Peter Wimsey and Bunter stranded at an East Anglia rectory in time to help bell ringers usher in the New Year.
Accompany with: some homemade muffins (trust me, the reader will need some when reading this) or some English stout

If you haven't yet read Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time, a crime fiction classic, buy it for yourself. This is the one in which Inspector Grant, confined to his hospital bed, decides to tackle the guilt or innocence of Richard III in the deaths of the two princes in the Tower. For proper reading, you'll also need a bed tray for reading in bed, but don't feel you need to eat jello or other bland, hospital-like food. I suggest accompanying this book with hot tea or hot chocolate and cookies.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

There's no rapture for these crime fiction characters

I'm home from work with the flu. My coughing and sneezing are too much for my dogs, who have disappeared under the bed, leaving me alone to binge watch The Leftovers, whose characters live in a world after a Rapture-like event caused many people to vanish. I can't tell if I'm running a fever or if this TV series, based on Tom Perrotta's novel of the same name, is just downright weird. I'll see if I can collect my thoughts enough to tell you about a couple of books whose characters have their hands full sans a mass disappearance.

A man who's falling from his fifth-floor window windmills his way to the ground in the opening of Maurizio de Giovanni's The Bottom of Your Heart: Inferno for Commissario Ricciardi (translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar; Europa Editions, November 2015). It's a beautiful piece of descriptive writing in a book replete with lively descriptions of life in the sweltering summer of 1939 Italy under Mussolini. The point of view leaps among various short first-person narrations, but it focuses primarily on a third-person omniscient narrator's account of the investigation of Commissario Luigi Ricciardi and Brigadier Raffaele Maione into the death of Professor Tullio Iovine del Castello, chair of gynecology at a university hospital in Naples. There is no shortage of suspects if Dr. Iovine was pushed or thrown; the victim repeatedly flunked an old professional rival's son in his medical school classes, was having an extramarital affair with a woman young enough to be his daughter, and had enraged a ferocious gangster who swore revenge.

The Botom of Your Heart is the seventh book in this series, and characters from previous books reappear. Ricciardi, who fears for his sanity and keeps himself aloof since "the Deed" that allows him to hear the final thoughts and to see the ghostly shades of people who have died by violence (see Maltese Condor's review here), is still single in his 30s and is living with his beloved tata, now in deteriorating health, and her niece, Nelide. The lonely Commissario also has the affections of Enrica, the shy teacher who lives with her family across the street; Livia Vezzi, a beautiful social butterfly and widow of Italy's most famous tenor; Dr. Modo, the irascible medical examiner; and, of course, his loyal and tireless Brigadier, whose own secrets make him particularly impatient with his informant, Bambinella, a transvestite prostitute. This entertaining series is for people who enjoy crime fiction with a literary bent, keeping track of an ensemble cast of characters, and an Italian setting that's brought to life by its characters' concerns and the author's vivid writing. A reader can begin anywhere in this series, but for the full backstory, start with the first book, I Will Have Vengeance: The Winter of Commissario Ricciardi.

The Italians in de Giovanni's series are natural philosophers. Even sassy private eye Kinsey Millhone is becoming more reflective in Sue Grafton's X (Marian Wood Books/Putnam, August 2015), the 24th book in the alphabet series set in the fictional town of Santa Teresa, California. Unlike other titles in the series (see my review of W Is for Wasted here), this "X" doesn't specifically stand for anything; however, one can find all sorts of Xs (symbolic and real), in the book: Teddy Xanakis, kisses, ex-husbands and wives, mistakes, the missing, a place locator, and unknowns.

In reading X, one gets the sense that things are beginning to wind up for Kinsey. The woman who trims her own hair with a fingernail scissors and has one dress hanging in her closet is financially secure, at least for a while; she can pick and choose her cases. Kinsey agrees to find an ex-con just released from prison only when Hallie Bettancourt says she was referred by one of Kinsey's friends, and Kinsey becomes involved in Pete Wolinsky's old case only when his widow, Ruthie, asks for help in locating financial records for an IRS audit. This isn't one of Grafton's strongest books; the plot feels somewhat contrived, and I was at times annoyed by Grafton's excessive attention to detail (Kinsey doesn't just make coffee, she turns on the machine, adds the coffee, watches the water heat...). Still, it's worthwhile to revisit Santa Teresa to see how one of mysterydom's most likable female sleuths is doing, and we won't have many more chances. Grafton does a great job of conveying what it's like to live on California's Central Coast; here, in 1989. Kinsey still goes to the library to look for old records and composes her case summaries on a Smith & Corona typewriter. She and her 89-year-old landlord and neighbor, Henry, are dealing with some new neighbors and the drought. (Was this timely reading!) In this 24th book, Kinsey seems less inclined to get into trouble, but when the searches for the ex-con and the financial records open cans of worms, she can't help but start digging. By the end, she's learned a thing or two and made her peace with the fact that justice isn't always cut-and-dried.