Review: In the Woods, by Tana French

This was a thumping good mystery. Well, 3/4 of it anyway, until it fell apart. Here’s the premise: 12-year-old Katy Devlin is found dead, the apparent victim of foul play. Detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox are assigned to the case. It just so happens that twenty years earlier, two of Rob’s 12-year-old friends disappeared from the very same housing estate. Rob was found, bloody and alone. The others were never found; the case was so notorious Rob changed his name and went to boarding school. Rob remembers nothing from that horrible day, but can’t help wondering if the two cases are linked in some way. He begins a parallel investigation, without revealing his personal interest to his superiors. And there’s one more angle: a land use dispute over a new motorway, with a barely perceptible whiff of corruption.

With three concurrent investigations, the reader meets a myriad of characters and joins Rob and Cassie in poring through forensic evidence. As with any good mystery, we begin making connections and we develop theories. And we come to like Rob and Cassie: they make a great team on the job, and have an unusually deep friendship.

But there are a couple of things that go wrong in this book. I will describe them without spoilers, although it’s difficult to convey their full impact. The first problem is Rob. My husband and I have a recurring and inconclusive conversation about whether authors can write authentically about a character of the opposite sex. I suspect this book is one where most men would say about Rob, “guys aren’t like that.” It’s not that he had a highly developed feminine side, he just did and said things a typical guy wouldn’t do, especially with Cassie (I’m sorry I can’t be more specific). Second, there was a character whose true self was revealed when the case was solved, but their voice wasn’t authentic, and they had improbable traits given some basic facts we already knew about them.

Lots of people would probably disagree with me about this. The mystery was realistic, and the book was a page-turner from start to finish. I enjoyed reading it.  So if you’re intrigued, I say go ahead and read it.  And then let’s talk about it!

I read this as part of a group read hosted by Rebecca @ Love at First Book.  I can’t wait to discuss the ending with the group!


Review: Sovereign, by C.J. Sansom

After my last read, which was bleak and somewhat depressing, Sovereign was just what the doctor ordered: an intelligent, historical mystery.  This is the third in the Matthew Shardlake series set in Tudor England.  Shardlake, a London lawyer, receives orders from Archbishop Cranmer to travel to York with King Henry VIII’s 1541 Progress.  There, he is to watch over the health and well-being of a prisoner, who is part of a conspiracy that threatens Henry’s right to the throne.  Shardlake and his assistant Barak arrive in York ahead of the Progress; the city is alive with preparations for the big event.  When a craftsman dies a grisly death, Shardlake suspects it was no accident.  He takes it upon himself to investigate, and so the tale unfolds.

There is so much to enjoy in these books.  First, there is the historical context.  Shardlake operates on the edges of court.  Well-known figures like Cranmer and the Duke of Norfolk are seldom central to the plot but never far away.  Familiar stories unfold, but as a backdrop instead of the centerpiece — such as, in this book, the events leading to Queen Catherine’s execution.  Second, Sansom fills Shardlake’s world with several interesting characters, and convinces the reader that just about any one of them could be guilty.  Then he weaves several threads into a web of major and minor mysteries.  In Sovereign, not only is there a murder to be solved, but someone is out to get Shardlake too.

My only quibble with these books is that Sansom can run on a bit: why use one word when ten will do?  The dead body didn’t show up until page 75, and it took nearly 600 more pages to solve the crime and tie up the loose ends.  However, I was hooked on the story and found myself sneaking short bursts of reading into my day, just to see what would happen next.  I’m happy to have the next installment already on my shelves.

Review: The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

I suppose if I had a moment of doubt at all it was then, as I stood in that cold, eerie stairwell looking back at the apartment from which I had come. Who were these people? How well did I know them? Could I trust any of them, really, when it came right down to it? Why, of all people, had they chosen to tell me?  (p. 199)

Richard Papen transferred to Hampden College in New England, after attending one year of college in his California hometown.  He immediately fell in with a select group of students studying Classics: Henry, Francis, Bunny, and twins Charles and Camilla. Their professor fostered camaraderie among the group, and isolation from the rest of the college and its social scene.  From the first page, we know that Bunny dies, and that the rest of the group played some part in his death.  The book showed how these events came to pass, and the profound impact Bunny’s death had on the others.

This book was seriously creepy, and as Donna Tartt set the stage for Bunny’s demise, the suspense grew.  I couldn’t put it down, even though it evoked feelings like watching Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Strangers on a Train, and invaded my sleep for several days.  I really don’t want to say much about the details, because it would spoil the story.  Suffice to say this was a shocking and yet somehow realistic portrayal of friendships gone bad.

Characterizations are one of The Secret History‘s strongest elements. Richard, as narrator, is the everyman through whom we see the others.  We learn of their personalities, their histories, and their dysfunctional behaviors.  We can even (almost) understand the circumstances leading to Bunny’s death, and sympathize with its aftereffects on their lives and friendships.  And oddly, these strong characterizations were also the book’s main weakness.  None of them seemed like 19-year-olds, even ones who attend a prestigious liberal arts college.  It wasn’t just their unfettered access to ridiculous sums of money, but also their extreme independence from adult figures, and some elements of their conversational style.  As much as I was caught up in the suspense, I was also conscious of suspending disbelief.  But if you can do so, you will fully enjoy this novel.

Review: The Keepers of Truth, by Michael Collins

Well, that was a waste of perfectly good reading time.  The Keepers of Truth starts out with a mystery:  a man disappears from a small midwestern town, and his ne’er-do-well do son is automatically a suspect.  Bill, a reporter for the local newspaper, is on the beat but for some reason doesn’t want to cover the investigation; instead he wants to write Really Great Prose about the meaning of life and how the crime is somehow representative of the sad decline of small towns and American industry in general.  Bill is a recent college graduate but comes across more like a 40-year-old suffering a mid-life crisis.  The other main characters are all various archetypes of the American white male.  Women are cast in subservient roles, primarily as waitresses or cheerleaders.  Their breasts fall out of their blouses and they reveal their underwear with alarming frequency.  Even the woman TV news reporter is objectified.

As if that weren’t enough, the story darts all over the place.  Bill is on the scene reporting the crime.  Bill pines after his former girlfriend.  Bill spends all night in a diner, several nights in a row (how does he go to work the next day?  Beats me).  Bill decides to prepare for law school again having failed the first time.  Bill pines after his girlfriend again.  Bill joins the police chief in rounding up rowdy high school students cruising the main drag.

All that in just over 80 pages.  By then I’d had enough.  The Keepers of Truth was nominated for the 2000 Booker Prize, competing against a field that included The Blind Assassin (which won), The Deposition of Father McGreevy, English Passengers, The Hiding Place, and When We Were Orphans.  Go read one of those instead.


Review: So Long, see you Tomorrow, by William Maxwell

Take away the pitcher and the bowl, both of them dry and dusty. Take away the cow barn where the cats, sitting all in a row, wait with their mouths wide open for somebody to squirt milk down their throats.  Take away the horse barn too — the smell of hay and dust and horse piss and old sweat-stained leather, and the rain beating down on the plowed field beyond the open door. Take all this away and what have you done to him? In the face of a deprivation so great, what is the use of asking him to go on being the boy he was. He might as well start life over again as some other boy instead. (p. 113)

Life can change dramatically and irrevocably in a split second.  This happened to Cletus Smith when his father, Clarence, a tenant farmer, shot and killed his friend and neighboring farmer, Lloyd Wilson.  In imagining the impact of this event, William Maxwell goes well beyond the obvious (a man dead, a family in mourning), to understand how the murder came to happen in the first place, and how these factors would have affected Cletus.

The narrator of this story was Cletus’ childhood friend only briefly, just before the murder.  And children, as we know, are highly unreliable narrators.  Many years later he gained access to newspaper accounts, and developed a more complete picture.  And yet, he understands even this view is unreliable:

What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory — meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion — is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw. (p. 27)

Despite this acknowledged flaw, our narrator reconstructs the events that led to Lloyd Wilson’s murder, and tells an emotional story of two families, a friendship, and marriages gone sour.  Our narrator is also not immune to tragedy and its aftermath: he lost his mother at a young age, and saw the devastating impact on his father.  Children are but observers of this drama, and are powerless to influence it.

Maxwell writes with such economy, packing surprising emotional depth into just a few sentences.  Take, for example, the quote that opens this review: can’t you just feel Cletus’ entire world crumbling around him?  A few pages later Maxwell describes the family dog’s response as her world also changes forever, and instead of appearing silly or superfluous, it reinforced the weight of the tragedy that befell this family.  And always, running through the story like a current, is the narrator’s guilt over how he treated Cletus later on.  He keeps trying to “rearrange things to conform to this end,” and simply cannot.  This is a powerful story; highly recommended.

A special thank-you to Rachel @ Booksnob for recommending this book.  In her review she wrote, “the sparse words slowly wind their way around your heart, squeezing it until you are overcome with emotion for the men in this novel, whose lives gave them so little, and for whom happiness was never quite achieved.”  That’s so true, and I’m only sorry it took me over a year to get around to reading this gem.

Review: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, by Tom Franklin

One evening Larry Ott returns home from work to find a masked intruder, who shoots him and leaves him for dead.  Fortunately local constable Silas Jones had asked a colleague to stop by Larry’s place, and they got to him just in time.  Larry’s life hung in the balance for several days.  During that time we follow the hunt for his assailant, but more importantly we learn a lot more about Larry, Silas, and their lives in rural Chabot, Mississippi.

Larry has been a recluse all his adult life.  As a teenager he was accused of raping and murdering a girl he took on a date.  She never returned home, her body was never found, and Larry refused to talk about it.  While he was never charged with the crime, he was ostracized by the community.  He took over his father’s auto repair shop, but his only customers were people from out-of-town, just passing through.

Silas spent his boyhood in Chabot with his mother.  They lived in a one-room hut on the Ott’s property.  Quite by happenstance, Larry and Silas became friends.  Secret friends, because Larry was white and Silas, black, and public friendships just weren’t possible.  Larry’s father put a stop to it in a humiliating and abusive way.  Eventually Silas and his mother moved so he could become the star baseball player at a different high school, and the boys lost touch.  Even after Silas returned to Chabot as Constable, their paths didn’t cross.  Until one day when Silas received a voice mail from Larry, just asking him to call.  It was this message that prompted Silas’ visit a few days later, just after Larry was shot.

At the time of the shooting, Silas was also investigating another young girl’s disappearance, some 20 years after the incident that changed Larry’s life forever.  Everyone in town thinks Larry committed a crime again.  That is, everyone but Silas.  Slowly, we learn the basis for Silas’ opinion, as we also uncover clues to Larry’s assailant and the girl’s disappearance.

I was completely caught up in this book, and at first it was because of the crime to be solved.  But Tom Franklin revealed those details very slowly, while painting vivid portraits of Larry and Silas and filling in their back story.  Eventually the shooting and the girl’s disappearance became just secondary mysteries; in fact, both were actually pretty easy to solve.  This book was much more about the mystery of these two men’s lives, and the profound influence of past events.  Again, Franklin revealed details slowly, and I often found myself rereading passages to make sure I was putting the pieces together correctly.  The result was a moving account of friendship, betrayal, and hope.

Review: Dark Fire, by C.J. Sansom

Dark Fire is the second in the Matthew Shardlake mystery series.  Shardlake, a lawyer, is capable enough to be occasionally retained by Thomas Cromwell, but his work also takes him to the darker, poorer areas of London.  In this book he’s juggling two such disparate cases.  First, he’s called in to defend Elizabeth Wentworth, a young woman accused of murdering her cousin Ralph by throwing him down a well.  Elizabeth refuses to speak to anyone, behavior which can only lead to a guilty verdict and death.  The court wants to deal with the case quickly — after all, there are hundreds more waiting.  But Cromwell needs Shardlake on another case, and uses his power to buy time for Elizabeth.

Cromwell’s case is by far the more interesting of the two, and concerns a mysterious substance capable of generating intense, destructive fire.  Known as Greek Fire or Dark Fire, the substance could be an important weapon in the King’s quest for power.  Cromwell is under pressure to stage a demonstration for King Henry VIII.  Dark Fire is known to be available in limited quantity, but its properties are not well understood, and the formula has been stolen.  Cromwell offers Jack Barak as an assistant to Shardlake, and the two set off to learn as much as they can about the origins of Dark Fire and the people currently controlling its use in London.  Shardlake finds himself moving in new, influential circles, as a guest at banquets hosted by the aristocratic Lady Honour.  Unlike most people, who see his hunchback as evidence of inferiority, Honour treats him with respect.  The banquets give Shardlake the opportunity to observe others who are influential in the case, including Cromwell’s rival, the Duke of Norfolk.

This being a murder mystery, it’s not too long before bodies start dropping right and left.  The plot is quite tangled, and it’s difficult to tell who’s on the side of good vs. evil.  Meanwhile, Shardlake continues to stay connected to Elizabeth’s case.  There are a few leads to follow up on, and some surprise developments. Thankfully progress is glacial, because he really has his hands full chasing down Dark Fire.  Along the way, C. J. Sansom provides the reader with rich detail that brings 16th-century London to life.  The summer heat exacerbated odors associated with human habitation; women held bouquets of posies close to their faces to mask the smell.  Sanitation techniques were primitive: at one point Lady Honour casually warned an attendant to “watch out for that turd,” and I realized this was probably a fairly common occurrence (ewww…!).  I also enjoyed the book’s historic context (summer of 1540 … Thomas Cromwell … anyone?), and the way everyday murder and mayhem touched the controversies of King Henry VIII’s court.

Review: Sweet Death, Kind Death, by Amanda Cross

Here’s what I like in a mystery:  well-developed characters, suspense, and a complex plot that requires the sleuth to prove their skill or intellect.

What was missing from this mystery:  all the above.

At first I was encouraged by the English teacher-as-sleuth, the opening quotes in each chapter from woman authors like Stevie Smith, Virginia Woolf, and Toni Morrison, and a the literary discussion around the edges of the plot.  The mystery was pretty standard stuff: a female professor is found dead on the campus of a women’s college, and it’s deemed a suicide until information comes to light making murder a possibility.

Kate Fansler, the aforementioned English teacher, is called in to investigate.  Why?  I’m not sure.  She had a tenuous connection to the victim, Patrice Umphelby, having met her once while waiting for a delayed flight.  Kate is also connected to two men writing Patrice’s biography, who have put their project on hold until the circumstances of her death are known.  The college brings Kate on board, ostensibly to take part in an academic task force, but really to give her free rein to talk to anyone on staff as part of her investigation.

And talk she does.  Most of the “action” involves Kate attending meetings or cocktail parties, and inquiring about Patrice.  People are clearly divided — love her or hate her — and they make their opinions known.  Two camps emerge, Kate tramps around New York and New England consuming Laphroig whiskey, and then, ta da!  With ten pages to go she explains what happened, everyone is very thankful, the end.

This was all way too simple for me.  Yes, it was murder, not suicide.  Surprise, someone who hated Patrice did it.  I could have guessed that early on, but dismissed the notion, expecting the plot to be more complex.  There was no suspense involved in nabbing the perpetrator — there was only Kate, quaffing another whiskey, basking in the admiration of those who should have been able to figure this out for themselves.

This is the seventh book in a series, and maybe I’ve missed something by not reading the back story.  But I’m probably not going to find out.

Review: Started Early, Took my Dog, by Kate Atkinson

Jackson Brodie has made a career out of finding missing people.  This line of work is somewhat of an obsession, brought on by his sister’s disappearance and murder many years before.  In this, the fourth novel in a series, Jackson is searching for a young woman’s biological parents.  Kate Atkinson carefully weaves this thread with several others to create a complex tale full of twists and turns.  Several prostitutes have been found murdered, prompting speculation about a serial killer.  Tracy Waterhouse, recently retired from the police force, impulsively rescues 4-year-old Courtney from an abusive situation, and finds herself taking on significant new responsibility.  Tilly, an aging actress, struggles to cope as dementia begins to affect her work.  And finally, the thirty-year-old unsolved murder of Carol Braithwaite is always lurking in the background.

All these disparate stories are related, and Kate Atkinson is a master at the slow reveal.  She leaves tiny clues as she moves from one thread to the next.  Some are red herrings, of course, which keeps the reader — and Jackson — guessing.  Atkinson also skilfully manipulates her readers, encouraging us to make assumptions based on what hasn’t been said:  Jackson’s breakthrough comes when he realizes he failed to ask the most obvious question.  Each thread also features well-developed characters.  Tilly’s relationship to the crimes was unclear through most of the novel, but her story was an emotional one that could almost stand on its own.  Much of the novel revolved around Tracy and Courtney, and while some of their story seemed far-fetched, it provided action and pacing.

Unfortunately, Jackson’s investigation seemed superfluous and lacked excitement. Inserting Jackson into a larger crime story allowed Atkinson to continue developing his character by playing out the effects of events from earlier novels, and leaving a tiny cliffhanger for possible consideration in a future book.  This was a disappointment, but Atkinson still produced a ripping good mystery that kept me engaged from start to finish.

Review: When Will There be Good News?, by Kate Atkinson

This is the third book in the Jackson Brodie mystery series, and the best so far.

Joanna Hunter seems to have it all:  she’s a successful doctor and mother of a darling baby boy.  But thirty years ago Joanna’s life was dramatically changed by tragedy:  her mother, sister, and brother were all killed in a random act of violence.  Joanna appears to have left those emotional scars behind, or at least covered them up really well. Reggie Chase works for Joanna as a mother’s helper.  She is sixteen and forced to leave school and live on her own after her mother’s recent death.  Reggie has seen some hard times, but has a keen wit and a love of learning that keep her going.  She admires Joanna, and is also somewhat attached to her former teacher, Ms. MacDonald, who is tutoring Reggie for her A-levels.  When Joanna disappears and her husband offers a weak explanation, Reggie is sure there’s trouble afoot.  She follows up on a chance encounter with Detective Chief Inspector Louise Monroe, and gets her involved in finding Joanna.

Meanwhile in a parallel story, Jackson Brodie is just going about his business, traveling from London to Edinburgh.  A harrowing event brings him into contact with Reggie, and then with Louise, who it turns out is an old friend.  The problem is, several people think Jackson is someone else, and the person they think he is may have stolen Jackson’s identity as well.  And all Jackson wants to do is make it home before his wife returns from a business trip and finds him missing.  But first there’s the matter of Joanna Hunter that now requires his attention, too.

There’s so much about the story that I can’t say, because every thread is so tightly wound with all the others and I don’t want to ruin it with even the tiniest spoiler.   But was with Case Histories and One Good Turn, Kate Atkinson has written a compelling mystery with some major surprises, and a delightful dose of humor expressed primarily through the thoughts and actions of her well-drawn characters.  I enjoyed this book from start to finish.