Tag Archives: mysteries

Midnight Riot

 by Ben Aaronovitch

Mysteries with a touch or more of the supernatural are not hard to find on library and bookstore shelves these days; but I found Ben Aaronovitch’s novel of elastic realism, Midnight Riot, to be something special, mainly because of the voice of the narrator, London Police Constable Peter Grant. Caught in the wrong (or right?) place at the right (or wrong?) time, he stumbles upon a murder scene where a ghost approaches him and claims he witnessed the crime.  As a result, Grant is assigned to work with Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, the Department’s go-to man for crimes involving magic. In short order, he finds himself enmeshed in a family feud among the personifications of the various tributaries (both above and below ground) of the Thames River.  Meanwhile, this being a police procedural, he and Nightingale plod away at unraveling not only the original murder, but various other nasty events that seem to be related to it.  And, under Nightingale’s tutelage, Grant begins to develop the magical abilities that he seems to have a gift for (as evidenced by his having been able to talk to the ghost witness in the first place) but of which he’s been previously unaware. Grant’s voice is colloquial and self-deprecating, the pages turn quickly, and London comes alive in all its squalor and beauty. And did I mention Toby, one of the best canine sidekicks in contemporary fiction? Fans of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere should enjoy Aaronovitch’s novel and its sequels quite a lot. Now to decide whether to shelve it with the mysteries or the fantasies…

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Britten and Brülightly

by Hannah Berry

Soon to be graduating with a degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Washington’s ISchool, Andrea Gough took time out from her classes (including mine!) to send me this book review.  The book is actually one of my favorites, as well.  I hope you enjoy it as much as the two of us did.

In Britten and Brülightly (Metropolitan Books, 2009), Hannah Berry’s graphic novel mystery, Fernández Britten is a depressed private investigator. It seems as though all he does is deliver the information that ruins lives. He’s considering two options: a career change, or suicide. He’s leaning toward suicide. Before he does, however, he’s approached with a new case: a young woman’s fiancée has been found dead, and the police ruled it suicide. She’s convinced that it was murder. Britten and his partner Brülightly decide to take it as one last case, one that Britten hopes will finally provide him the redemption of a positive outcome. While Britten’s outlook is fairly bleak, sparks of wry British wit come courtesy of Britten’s partner Brülightly, who is—did I mention this?—a teabag. It sounds like a deal-breaker, I know, but Berry carries it off flawlessly. Here’s an example of one such exchange, after the client has first called, and Brülightly asks Britten what she seems like:

Britten:  Mid-twenties; well-bred; either hard-nosed  by nature or as a result of coping  with this murder, it’s difficult to say.

Brülightly:  Was she alright?

Britten:  She seemed quite composed.

Brülightly: That’s not what I meant…

Britten:  I know what you meant. Don’t be lecherous: you’re a teabag.

Brülightly:  I’m a teabag with needs, Fern.

 Flashes of humor aside, Berry has crafted a well-executed, hardboiled mystery. Britten and Brülightly’s search for the truth is labyrinthine and complex enough to satisfy most mystery fans.  At the same time, this noir mystery is matched and enhanced by Berry’s atmospheric, nearly atonal painted illustrations.  She plays with form, moving away from cartoon-inspired boxy drawings to distinctive illustrations that span an entire page, which both build upon and facilitate the flow of dialogue and action. I don’t read a ton of graphic novels, but if more were like this then I absolutely would. So, if you’re a graphic novel novice or enthusiast, or simply a fan of complex noir mysteries in the style of Dashiell Hammett, definitely give Britten and Brülightly a try.

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The Monsters of Templeton

by Lauren Groff

My friend Andrea Gough is a great reader.  Here’s what she had to say recently about one of her favorite recent books:

As is the case with many readers, I’m a sucker for a good opening line, and Lauren Groff’s The Monsters of Templeton immediately hooked me: “The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass.”  The character is Willie Upton; the disgrace, an unplanned pregnancy resulting from an illicit affair with her Ph.D. advisor.  The monster is a sort of upstate New York Loch Ness Monster, the discovery of which runs as an undercurrent to the narrative (and which provides the perfect, melancholy epilogue).

Back to hide in her mother’s home, Willie mopes until presented with this challenge: the story she’s always been told of her absent father is untrue.  He was a descendent of the town’s founding fathers and still lives in the small town she grew up in.  Willie, an archaeologist, jumps at this mystery as at a lifeline, and begins sifting through the archives of the town.  In hindsight, one of the things that surprised me about The Monsters of Templeton is how perfectly realized each character’s voice is.  As Willie searches for her father, she reads journals, letters, and newspaper accounts of her diverse and dynamic ancestors, all presented in the novel, and the voice in each of those parts is totally unique.  Groff excels at populating her story with vibrant, living people, both historical and contemporary.  As a reader who loves characters, I feel as though The Monsters of Templeton is a book that was written for me.

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Christie Fan(atic)s

Of course I realize that I’m not the only one who loves Agatha Christie’s mysteries.  There are lots and lots of us around — that’s why her books have never gone out of print since her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles was first published in 1920.  She wrote her last mystery, Postern of Fate, in 1973, when she was 82 years old. And they’re all still in print, more than 35 years after her death.

For some reason, I’ve been thinking a lot about Christie’s mysteries on these rainy, weirdly spring-like days in Seattle. (Maybe it’s the grey skies.)  I just finished reading the last page of a “must read” for Christie fan(atic)s — Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks: Fifty Years of Mysteries in the Making (Harper 2010) by John Curran.  Did you know that, as Curran says, “It is possible to read a different Christie title every month for almost seven years … And it is possible to watch a different dramatization every month for two years.” 

Pretty impressive, isn’t it?

What especially interests me, though, is why people enjoy her books so much, and, more specifically, why I read and reread her mysteries on a fairly regular basis. (I’ve never read one of her non-mysteries, all of which were written under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott.)  The odd part for me is that her great strength, which is her genius at plotting, is something that is generally not important to me in what I read.  I’m always much more interested in character development and the quality of the writing than I am in what happens in any particular book. The books I love best tend to be character, rather than story, driven and always, always distinguished by gorgeous writing.  But Christie’s characters are as thin as paper; they tend to be stock characters — the dim-witted housemaid, the bluff retired army officer, the ne’er do well child who leaves home at an early age and returns as an adult.  Even her major characters, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, have no depth.  Poirot is always described in terms of his mustaches, his love of tisanes, his compulsive neatness, his egg shaped head, and the little grey cells he puts to good use for detecting.  And Miss Marple, dithery and a knitter, is a whiz at reading people.  But that’s all we know about them — there’s no inner life for us to discover.  And don’t get me started on Captain Hastings — I was very happy when Christie sent him off to the Argentine to raise cattle!  Plus, her writing, while hardly clunky, is not what you read the books for.  Her actual prose is serviceable and unobtrusive.  But her storytelling is brilliant, and her talent for writing the puzzler sort of mystery is unmatched. I can’t think of anyone else who can give the reader all the clues necessary to solve the case, and yet whose ability to disguise them in such a diabolical fashion means that you’re unlikely to guess whodunit before all is revealed in the last scene. 

Over the years I must have bought hundreds of copies of her books.  I’d start out by reading or rereading one of them and then feel compelled to read them all.  When I finished, I couldn’t imagine ever reading them again, so I’d donate them to the library book sale or give them to friends. Then, a year or so later, perhaps, I’d be lying in bed and a scene from one of her books would flash into my head and I’d want to reread it; so I’d have to buy a copy, since (sadly) it was unlikely to be in at the library at just the moment I wanted it.  Inevitably, after finishing that one, I’d want to go back and reread them all again (always, of course, having forgotten in the meantime who the murderer was).  Which meant I had to buy them all once again. This has happened too many times for me to count. I was very happy when the publishing company Black Dog & Leventhal reprinted several of them in hardcover, because, psychologically, they’re harder for me to give away.  I just went through this same process — obsessively rereading her oeuvre — and now have another complete set of her mysteries.  I sincerely hope that I’ve learned my lesson and will not get rid of any of these.

My all time favorite novel of hers is one in which neither Poirot or Marple appears. It’s called either Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? or The Boomerang Clue, depending on where and when it was published.

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Brat Farrar

Brat-Farrarby Josephine Tey

If I had to choose a favorite mystery novel, I think I’d pick Josephine Tey’s, Brat Farrar (Touchstone, 1997).  I have now read Brat Farrar so many times that I’ve had to replace several worn out copies.  I’ve always heard that Tey, who published little more than a handful of novels between 1927 and 1952, had trouble coming up with plots; so she frequently borrowed stories she had read in newspapers and then composed a novel based loosely around those details.  (This is certainly the case with her novel, The Franchise Affair, which happens to be possibly my second all time favorite mystery novel.)  Even a brief outline of Brat Farrar reveals a familiar plot: A young man masquerades as the heir to a fortune and nearly gets away with it.  But Tey turns this summary on its head and the result is an emotionally satisfying novel that answers less who-done-it than how-and-why it was done.  The title character, Brat Farrar, returns to England after spending many years in Canada working as a ranch hand.  He is sitting peacefully in a restaurant one day when a total stranger comes up to him, addresses him as Simon, and asks him how come he’s able to lounge around London when his 21st birthday is rapidly approaching (which means that as eldest son he’ll come into a not-inconsiderable inheritance). Shouldn’t he be home helping with the plans for the gala occasion?  At first Brat is merely surprised at being mistaken for Simon Ashby, heir to Latchetts, an English country estate devoted to horse breeding, then he’s intrigued when the stranger comes up with an apparently perfect plan, one with a big financial payoff for both men.  Brat will simply pretend that he’s Patrick, the first-born twin and therefore the rightful heir.  But Patrick disappeared when he was about 13, and has long been presumed dead.  Brat, as Patrick, will return to the family, collect his inheritance, split it with the stranger, who turns out to be a close family friend of the Ashby’s, and then disappear again. After some intensive coaching, Brat infiltrates himself into the life of the Ashby family, only to discover that things are seldom what they seem, and an easy con turns potentially deadly.

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The Skull Mantra

skull-mantra-eliot-pattisonby Eliot Pattison

I’ve never stopped suggesting Eliot Pattison’s thriller, The Skull Mantra (Minotaur, 2008), to mystery fans; and it has a place in my permanent book collection. It won a well-deserved Edgar award for Best First Novel when it was published in 1999. Pattison introduces Shan Tao Yun, who has been sent from his job as the Inspector General of the Ministry of Economy in Beijing to a forced labor camp in Tibet, where his fellow prisoners include Tibetan monks and other dissidents. Then a local Chinese official is discovered — headless — near the road construction project Shan has been assigned to. A Chinese colonel assigns Shan to solve the case.  It’s clear that the Colonel expects the murder to be blamed on a specific monk, and he tries bribing Shan with more food and better living conditions to accede to his directive.  As we follow Shan in his attempts to remain true to his conscience, appease the Colonel, survive inhumane conditions, and finally solve a complex mystery, we’re introduced to a singular and stunning country, its people, and its customs. I’ve seldom read a novel that more effectively captures the soul of its setting (Tony Hillerman comes close) in all of its contradictions, difficulties, and beauty.  Though Shan takes center stage, the real hero of this novel is Tibet, during its ongoing struggle for freedom from China.

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The Caveman’s Valentine

caveman's-valentineby George Dawes Green

Although he went on to write two nicely reviewed novels — The Juror and the recently published Ravens —  I found both of them to be a bit too scary for my taste. But I absolutely loved George Dawes Green’s very first novel, The Caveman’s Valentine, published way back in 1994.  (I am so happy it’s back in print from Grand Central Publishing.) It’s a page-turner with wonderfully three-dimensional characters.  Bad things happen, but nothing absolutely too awful to bear. Romulus Ledbetter, the caveman of the title, is a Juilliard-trained classical pianist.  He’s also homeless and a paranoid schizophrenic.  (He would say that he isn’t, technically, homeless, since he lives in a cave in Manhattan’s Linwood Park.)  In the time that isn’t taken up with searching for food in dumpsters, Romulus wages war against the sinister Cornelius Gould Stuyvesant, whom Rom believes is beaming down totally dangerous Y rays from the Chrysler Building.  These rays are the direct cause of all the ills facing humankind, and Rom is convinced he must find Stuyvesant and stop him.  He’s diverted from his quest because one Valentine’s Day morning, Romulus discovers a dead body lying in front of his cave. Driven to find the murderer, he must reconnect with the world he’d long ago left behind, including his daughter, a policewoman, all the while coping (or not) with his schizophrenia, his hatred of Stuyvesant, and the “civilized” world.

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