Friday, May 31, 2013

Three fun mysteries, a Flapper, a car, and a kitten

I’ve recently discovered a new more or less cozy series, and while it’s pure mind candy, it’s very good mind candy. The books are short, easy read, and sparkle with well done dialog, nicely drawn characters, and excellent, convoluted plots. The author is Kerry Greenwood, and the books feature Phryne Fisher, an Australian P.I. They are set in 1928/29, and have much the same charm as the Daisy Dalrymple series, set in England during the same time period. They are published by Tullamarine, Victoria, Australia : Bolina Audio ; Grand H. The books I’ll be talking about, more or less in one big, fluffy, bon bon are: Flying Too High, Murder on the Ballarat Train and Death at Victoria Dock. There may be more in this series, but if so, I haven’t found them, and while I found them charming and will certainly read any I happen across, they aren’t quite good enough to search for. Even while reading these books, I was strongly reminded of the Daisy Dalrymple books by Carolla Dunn, as I’ve already mentioned. The 2 series are by different authors. They take place across the world from one another, but they are set during the same time period, and their heroines, although very different in some ways, share an essential goodness, strong sense of justice, warmth, humor and courage. Had they met, I think they would quickly have become fast friends. Phryne is an exuberant, unapologetic libertine, who delights in her “lovely young men”, and has no scruples whatsoever in seducing and then enjoying them. If the reader can accept this, (and there is something so honest and innocent in her lascivious behavior that one almost must do so, as do the members of her extremely eclectic household), one can also quickly see that she is warm, caring, delightfully self reliant and independent, and courageous when it really counts. Phryne also has the habit of adopting (literally, in 2 cases) people and kittens, and she has the absolute loyalty of those who share her home, and those with whom she works, both on and very much off the police force. In each case, the mysteries are very engaging, and in some cases show the seamier side of life with understanding, empathy for life’s innocent victims, and outrage at certain injustices. Aside from all this, she is an aviatrix (as she firmly demonstrates in Flying Too High) and has other unlikely skills that come in handy on several occasions. Oh, and she has an absolutely wonderful bright red car, the only one of its kind in all of Australia, upon which both she and her chauffer/cum butler lavish affection verging on adoration. The writing is crisp and vivid, and one gets the feeling that there is a gentle smile, and sometimes a wink, just behind the words. Phryne may be a flapper, love fancy clothes, fast cars, dancing on airplane wings and lovely men, but there is absolutely nothing superficial at her core. She is bright, practical, tenacious, and more than willing to take risks with her own life to save a child or bring a murderer to swift justice.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Comments on The Black Dahlia Avenger by Steven Hodel

Black Dahlia avenger: a genius for murder By Steve Hodel ISBN: 1559706643, Recorded from: New York, NY: Arcade Publishing; distributed by AOL I’ve read my fair share of true crime books, and I’m used to a certain pattern. The crime and investigation are described in detail, and very little background or biographical information concerning the participants of the event is included. The specific event takes precedence, and the emphasis is strongly on the resolution of the crime. Black Dahlia Avenger does not fit that mold, and was so different that it took me a while to appreciate exactly what the author was doing. I found myself becoming impatient with the biographical information, until I understood its importance. Once I did, though, I found the entire book fascinating and very much enjoyed reading it. This is the story of a darkly dysfunctional family, written by the son of a serial killer father. It revolves around one of the most famous unsolved murders of the 20th century, the Black Dahlia murder. This crime has been so absorbed into popular culture that even its name evokes a specific time period and place. Books have been written about it, and movies have been made about it, but the Black Dahlia murder has always remained unsolved …until now. True, it has not been officially solved, there has been neither trial, nor conviction, nor punishment, but the presented evidence is so overwhelming that it has received endorsements from leading people in the criminal justice field, so as far as I’m concerned, that counts. But, this book is far more than the story of a crime. It’s a set of portraits and a family history that nearly gave me nightmares. The father of this family was one of the most horrific people I’ve ever encountered in any book, not for his brutality, (though he most certainly was brutal) but because of his brilliance and the ways in which he constructed his own rules of behavior, which gave full license to, among other things, child abuse, incest and murder. The Black Dahlia (Elizabeth Short) wasn’t his only or first victim. She became a part of the licentious, sadistic, perverted world constructed by George Hodel and his friends, and paid the ultimate price for her association with it, and with him. In this book, we see that world through the eyes of the author, his son Steven. He tells the entire story quietly and pragmatically, with little comment, and, in that quiet telling, the absolute horror and inhumanity of the world in which he grew up reveals itself. It is also a depiction of corruption and cover up in very high places, and reveals an almost complete disregard for law by the very institutions established to protect and enforce it. We learn of how criminals were protected and of how officials in law enforcement profited from criminal activity. In short, if the criminal was of value to certain police officials, his crimes were “buried”, and he was never required to account for them in any way. Again, the killer in this book made himself very valuable to these corrupt officials, and was given carte blanche to do whatever he chose, and he chose to commit incest, rape, murder and other serious crimes. This book is long, intricate, and the kind of reading best done in the full light of day. The horror story here isn’t graphic, and yet it has a profound effect, mostly, I think, because it is so carefully, and unemotionally, told.

Book staging: settings and backgrounds

There are 4 things I look for in a book. They are, not necessarily in order of importance, 1. Plot: 2. Character development: 3. Setting and atmosphere: and 4. Quality of writing. This time, I want to talk about settings and atmosphere. While there are notable exceptions, books are not “performed” on an empty stage with no props or costumes. The background setting places any book in context, whether historical or modern, and the more vivid and vibrant it is, the more life it gives to the story. Sometimes, (and this is especially true in series that all take place in the same setting), the setting can become so real that I seem to slip into it completely, and have to reorient myself when I stop reading or finish the book. I can even become just a bit “homesick” for some settings, like the bayou settings of the Dave Robichaux books, or the little MN town where the Cookie Jar mysteries by Joanna Flukes take place. The background can never overwhelm the story, but when it is well done, a few words or a paragraph can set a scene so indelibly that it remains unforgettable, and, in my mind, the action of the story unfolds naturally in it. I can see the buildings, hear the sounds, natural or otherwise, feel the weather, and be a kind of invisible and passive character in the story happening around me. When this happens, I am unabashedly delighted!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Once upon a profile

I’d like to talk about 3 books by Alan Jacobson. They are: The Seventh Victim, Crush, and Velocity, and are published by Vanguard Press. I’d classify these books under the category of police procedurals, although this category has spawned several sub categories, so this would be more like an FBI procedural. The main character is a profiler, and the books revolve around her investigations of 3 difficult cases. Karen is a funny, feisty lady with some serious anger management issues, but she is also absolutely dedicated to her work, willing to explore possibilities that go against the grain of the investigation, and can be totally loyal and loving to the people close to her. She’s prickly in the extreme, but she’s also the kind o friend that you treasure, because you *know* she’ll be there for you when things get up against the wall tough, and you *know* she won’t ever lie to you, or try to manipulate you for her own purposes. Serial killers, however, don’t get such privileges; in fact, where they are concerned, she is relentless and implacable. There have been so many serial killer novels lately that they have almost become a drug on the market, and can become stereotypical. What sets this series apart, aside from Karen herself (and she goes a long way toward doing that) is the depth of FBI procedural and profiler knowledge the author displays. He goes into detail about how an investigation is run, especially one of those task forces that include police officers from local jurisdictions, and he explains exactly how profiles are constructed, what they can and can’t provide, and the pitfalls that can sidetrack investigators. Like most really good stories, this one has more than one theme. Alongside the investigations is Karen’s personal life, which keeps distracting her in major ways. Despite these distractions, which are heart rendingly serious, she manages to unravel some very tangled skeins, with often dramatically breath holding action. All 3 books (and I think there are more) are very well written, and, just when I was beginning to dismiss the killer as “another typical serial killer who ...” the author changes the game, raises the stakes, and keeps me surgically attached to his books. Great stuff, if you like this kind of book, which I do!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Branches on the mystery tree

The mystery genre has developed many branches since its introduction into fiction. Like any old and flourishing tree some branches are very large, and have developed branches of their own, and even those smaller branches produce offshoots. Sometimes a branch depends on its uniqueness because of the character or occupation of the primary detective. This has given us Priests, Nuns, Rabbis, Ministers and University Professors (as samples) who find themselves in positions which require them to untangle mystery knots and solve crimes. Another sub branch of the cozy is what I call the theme cozy. This usually involves people with special interests, is often as interested in the skill set or occupation around which the plot revolves, and depends as much on the lives of the main characters as on the mystery being solved. So, we have, among other things, cat mysteries, dog mysteries, knitting, cooking, cookie shop, wine making or collecting, and house renovation mysteries. These are almost always in series, and, while each presents a crime (usually murder, of course), the series itself tells the story of a specific person, that ‘person’s immediate family and environment, (town, village, etc.) and love life if not married, and family life (kids spouse and pets) where appropriate. While there is almost always a police presence of some sort, the indomitable sleuth is either barely tolerated or outright discouraged, because, after all, the owner of a cookie shop or the president of a knitting group is emphatically not a professional law enforcement officer. At some point in the series, the detective usually wins the grudging respect of someone in law enforcement and gains some access, albeit with many reservations. Sometimes the market seems to be flooded with these theme mysteries, and many readers find them shallow. Well, usually they *are*, but they are popular because they work. The crimes are often cleverly constructed, the characters are often very well drawn, sympathetic and believable, the continuing story of the main character’s life and experiences is engaging, and, last but not least, the theme provides interest of its own, and not just for people who are interested in the topic. I have absolutely no desire to renovate an old house, for example, but I enjoy the “Home repair is homicide” series by Sarah Graves, partly because I collect tidbits of home renovation knowledge I may never need, but which is still interesting. One of my favorite series is the “cookie shop” mysteries, especially because I love to bake, and the recipes included are an extra treat. Of course, any mention of this type of story must include homage to Dick Francis, who brought the world of horse racing brilliantly to life during his long and illustrious career, and to Lillian Jackson Braun, who delighted readers (including this reader) for many years with her charming “cat who …” books. In short, most of the books in this sub-genre are mind candy, but at their best, they are pure, and scrumptious, Godiva!

Musings on Historical Fiction

Historical fiction can loosely be defined as an original work of fiction which takes place in an historical period and is usually set against important historical events. The story may or may not include more than passing references to those events, and may or may not contain famous personages of the time as major or minor characters. However, the goal is not to reproduce an historical event, but to use it as a “stage” on which to enact an original story. Sometimes, the historical research is extensive and impeccable. Sometimes there is minimal research, and the author plays fast and loose with even well known facts. Usually, however, main or crucial events aren’t changed. For example if Julius Caesar had avoided the assassination attempt, or survived it, the fiction would change from historical to alternate history (an interesting genre in itself.). Characters who never existed do things that never (but perhaps could have) happened. If one is to enjoy such fiction, it is important to understand that it is not history. It isn’t even, at least directly, a commentary on history. It is not objective, either, because we are seeing the events from the viewpoint of the fictional characters, and perhaps, through them, the author. In other words, it is history seen through a specific lens. I don’t think this devalues historical fiction. If it is well done, the reader can gain an understanding of a specific time period or event by seeing a different perspective, and can interact with that event in the way one does when reading good fiction. Many people, young and not so young, have been drawn into an interest in history itself not from a textbook, but from a good historical novel. Any appraisal of historical novels, therefore, should be made keeping these things in mind, and evaluated not solely on historical accuracy, important as that is, but also, and perhaps primarily, on the original story. Such books must meet 2 criteria, then, that of accuracy and good research, and that applied to works of fiction.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Once along a village road

Comments on Over My Dead Body by Claire Lorrimer ISBN: 0727859854, New York: Severn House, c2003. This is a charming little English Country village mystery, replete with eccentric characters, lovely Kentish countryside, a whole gallery of sleuths (who give due homage to Ms. Marple), a dire curse with attendant ghosts and, even a kitten, who plays a crucial role in the resolution. Someone is killing members of the Road Committee (something I’ve never encountered, but which is eminently sensible in the circumstances), and it is up to the residents of the people who live along this private road to find out who, and why. These characters include a young married couple (with babies), 2 very eccentric elderly sisters, one of whom exceeds the norm in eccentricity, a retired rector, a famous author, and a crippled Battle of Britain pilot. All have spouses (except for the sisters), and all have reasons to be concerned about the plans for the road proposed by the richest neighbor. One of them, apparently, is so concerned that he or she is taking matters very much, and very permanently, in hand. The plot is very clever, the characters are delightful, and the writing is very good. Aside from the fact that the CID detective who is trying to figure out what is going on is a bit more willing to discuss the investigation than I find credible, this book works, and it is the perfect accompaniment to a rainy afternoon, a plate of snacks (savory or sweet) and, if not a cuppa, then perhaps some rich hot chocolate or excellent coffee.

Comments on River Of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

Thoughts and comments on River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh Reading this book is as delightfully exotic as a bizarre in a foreign country, and I found it a completely involving experience. But, because of its complexity, diversity, and energy, I have been trying to talk about it here, for most of a week, without being able to produce anything readable or remotely rational. Technically, it is the story of a specific event that occurred in Canton, China in the 1830s. This event led, almost directly, to the beginning of the Opium war, and so it is pivotal, just as the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was in 1914. But it is also the story of an extended family, the story of one man and his son, and the stories, in differing depths of characters who were joined by the this event. What makes it hard to talk about though is that it is like a pebble dropped into a lake. At the center is the story, but the ripples are it implications and the areas of consideration they create; and those range from thoughts on such personal issues as family, integrity and loyalty to the broad issues of British imperial history, current East/West relations and even our own “War on drugs”. Then there is the philosophical consideration of addiction, in all its forms, and the incredible damage and destruction on all levels that result from it. Because of my cultural experience and mindset, the setting, early 19th Century Canton, was exotic enough to seem nearly alien, and so vividly portrayed that my imagination slipped easily into the streets, houses and especially the boat community of the Pearl River. This city was the main point of trade access between China and the rest of the world, so it became a crossroads where traders and others from all over the world came into contact and interacted with one another and with the Chinese, both officially and unofficially. The British East India Company was China’s primary trading partner, though it was, at that time, a fairly one sided partnership, and the East India Company was by far the partner who reaped the most profit. There was one predominant import, and that was opium. Suppliers bought the product in India, and brought it to Canton to sell to East India Company traders, who sold it to consumers in China, who flooded the Chinese consumer market. We enter the story just as the Chinese Government has determined that opium was destroying their country from the inside, and had decided to rid itself of this poison. As so often happens, this realization took time; almost half a century and thus came too late to be resolved easily. Against this political and commercial background and inextricably intertwined with it are the very personal dramas of a father with 2 families, only one of which he can officially recognize, his son, and the story of a search for a rare plant. This book is so exquisitely written that all these different tales and characters come together seamlessly and vibrantly, reflecting the permutations of the main themes in ways which function both as comment and amplification. However, above and beyond all, this is a compelling story about “real” people and because of that, it is also totally involving and profoundly effective. The author’s prose is glorious in its vividness and lyric beauty. His characters are entirely believable, and, even though we are transported to very different cultures, they seem exotic, but never completely alien, because the author emphasizes the human dilemmas that bind us all to one another.