Disordered Minds by Minette Walters, 2003
We start in 1970, in Bournemouth, England, where a youngish teenage girl is gang-raped by some louts in the bushes at the
edge of a park. That unsavoury scene takes a mere eight pages. Then we get excerpts from a book about some miscarriages of
justice in murder trials. After some 30 pages of that, we’re in 2003 and the writer of the afore-mentioned book is coming
to Bournemouth to investigate what he believes was the wrongful conviction of a supposed murderer. You might expect that
there will be a link to the rape that opened the book but, before the two stories converge, you’re going to have serious
doubts that they ever will.
I know that Minette Walters is a crime writer highly-regarded by many people. In spite of a few well-written passages in
this book, I found it, for the most part, too complicated, too belaboured in its plotting and narration. People were
impersonating other people and I lost track of who was who or why. Not to mention my recoiling from sentences like: "Hysteria
rocketed round his gut, searching for an exit, before converting into painful tears behind his eyes." Long discursive tangents
– about racism, about the Iraq war and about Prince Charles’ views on architecture – seem to have less to
do with the story than with the author’s wish to give the book a literary sheen. Some scenes are preposterous –
for instance, an encounter in a railway station where a supposed "Good Samaritan" is too obviously scamming the main character.
That person's character, in fact, is too complex to come through clearly. He’s particularly unconvincing in his traumatic
response, as a black man, to having been called a "dirty nigger". It’s scarcely credible that any intelligent person
today would take such stupidity to heart.
About half way through, just at the point where I gave up on this one, comes the sentence: "There was too much information
and Billy wasn’t practised enough to sort the wheat from the chaff". I feel your pain, Billy.
Persuader by Lee Child, 2003
Lee Child’s novel One Shot, starring "Jack Reacher", was one of the best mysteries in a long
time (see Dilettante’s Diary "Summer Mysteries ‘07"), so I figured this earlier one would be a good bet.
In the riveting opening scene we watching our hero thwart a kidnapping. By the end of the chapter, though, we find that
there’s more going on than meets the eye. The rest of the book describes Reacher’s invasion of a secure bastion
on a rugged sea coast in order to get the goods on the master criminal in residence.
Jack Reacher’s one of the best heroes in thrillers. What makes him so compelling is that, while he’s tough
and smart, he operates within reasonable limits. Faced with a potential threat, he times and measures everything, with split-second
calculations, to figure out just what he can or can’t do. When he’s escaping from a third-storey window by a drain
pipe, he admits the challenges that such a manoeuver presents for a guy like him: "I’m not an agile person. Put me in
the Olympics and I’d be a wrestler or a boxer or a weightlifter. Not a gymnast." He’ll give believable step-by-step
accounts of procedures, whether he’s talking about sneaking past a metal detector, making love or fighting to the death.
His phenomenal escape from a near-drowning includes just enough plausible detail to be convincing.
Another thing I like about him is his psychological insight. He’ll note, for instance, that somebody’s
apparent embarrassment is real if it involves blushing: you can’t fake a blush. Same with somebody’s turning pale.
He also explains that, if you ask a potential witness about some problematic issue and they blurt out that they don’t
know anything about it, they’re lying. Normally a person will consider the question, possibly ask for clarification,
before answering. An immediate "No!" usually means the answer was prepared.
Jack’s short, trenchant sentences can seem a bit too clipped at first. After a while, though, his narrative style
grows on you. You realize this guy is telling you only what you need to know. He’s not wasting time and space on descriptive
or philosophical flourishes. Every sentence counts. Which means you can trust that he’s going to take you to the heart
of the matter speedily and directly. Makes for a terrific ride.
The Interrogation by Thomas H. Cook, 2002
I get the impression this book is considered a classic of contemporary crime fiction. And with good reason.
Mainly because of the book’s narrative structure. Two cops are interrogating a drifter who, they’re quite sure,
has murdered a child in a park. They have only twelve hours to break down his stubborn denial. If, by then, they
haven’t come up with any grounds to detain him further, they’re obliged to let him go. The scenes in the interrogation
room alternate with flashbacks to earlier incidents and with scenes that tell us what’s going on elsewhere while the
interrogation is taking place. But it’s that tension in the interrogation room, the stand-off between the two cops and
the taciturn drifter, that makes this such a gripping read.
Along the way, there’s some very powerful writing. The author has some thought-provoking things to say about
various human issues, especially about how fathers feel for their offspring. A so-called "ugly" waitress comes across
as warm and human in a cameo appearance.
Just a few quibbles. Some passages are decidedly over-written. Twice within eight pages, we get the sensation of walls
"closing in" on somebody. At times, some of the low-life types border on cartoon caricatures. But then, the thought of some
of their ilk in the Maigret mysteries by Georges Simenon convinces me that Thomas Cook’s baddies aren’t too corny.
At the end of the book, I was a little confused about what had happened. A certain enigma about the accused drifter wasn’t
entirely dispelled (as far as I could tell). Put it down to artistic effect.
But one artistic pretension that’s harder to forgive is the dividing of the book into four parts for no good reason.
No marked difference in the material comprising each section justifies such a separation. It looks like an attempt to give
the book a sophisticated mein. It’s just a waste of paper.
Blood Is The Sky by Steve Hamilton, 2003
Retired cop Alex McKnight lives in a cabin in the "thumb" district of Michigan. His Ojibwa friend Vinnie asks for help
finding his brother, a guide, who has disappeared with a group of hunters in Northern Ontario. Much of the story takes place
A few snags impeded my reading in a minor way. Author Steve Hamilton overdoes the Canuck-speak with
the repeated "eh?" (but he clearly knows this part of the world). At times the dialogue is slightly flat, the explanation
of the crime that has taken place, when it finally comes, is a bit laboured, and the book has a structural problem, in that
the most exciting action takes place about three-quarters of the way in.
But there’s a lot to like about the book – mainly a quiet, steady integrity in the writing. It’s all
very clear, never pretentious or over-blown. The cross-cultural aspects of the white man’s friendships with the aboriginal
people have a ring of truth. At one point, Alex waits in a kitchen with several of Vinnie’s relatives, none of whom
speak to him. When he asks about that later, Vinnie tells him, "They don’t dislike you....They just don’t understand
you." Vinnie says his mother thinks Alex walks around "carrying too much pain." I especially liked the humour in Vinnie’s
comments about acting as a guide. At first, he says, it feels like the white guys expect you to be some cartoon character
from television. "But then you realize, shit, they’re right. I am different. My ancestors, they did know
all this stuff. And I’m still part of it."
The Distant Echo by Val McDermid, 2003
It’s 1978 in St. Andrew’s, Scotland. Four tipsy university students are returning to their digs one snowy night.
They stumble over the body of a local barmaid, who has been stabbed. She dies promptly. Just as promptly, the four guys become
the prime suspects.
As the investigation of the case whirls around and around, it begins to seem that maybe this novel isn’t so much
about the solving of the crime as about the way the four students cope with the infamy. After about 200 pages, we jump ahead
to 2003. Now the book begins to feel like one of those novels that Ruth Rendell writes under the name of "Barbara Vine": a
study of how a crime from long-ago impacts on current affairs. Eventually, though, we do reach a solution to the murder mystery.
While I had some problems with the writing in this book, something kept me reading to the end (nearly 500 pages). Ms. McDermid
tells a story very well. The mood and atmosphere of the small university town are conveyed without any extraneous description.
There’s no literary artifice to get in the way. The coincidences and complications that crop up feel natural and believable,
never contrived. Early on, some examples of fine writing earned my close attention. The scene where the cops break the tragic
news to the parents of the murdered barmaid stood out as one example. Then the scene where her violent brother stormed into
the cop shop demanding justice.
About the problems, though. I wasn’t sure that Ms. McDermid’s rendering of the students’ banter with
each other was entirely convincing On the other hand, I wasn’t a Scottish university student in the 1970s, so how can
I be sure what they sounded like? It struck me as a bit abrupt, though, when a major character was propelled to
try to commit suicide, the build-up of his motivation having taken only about three pages. And the long discussion at
the end of the book to tie up loose ends – all based on a character’s confession – struck me as not the
cleverest handling of the mystery genre.
Strange to say, I spotted the likely murderer early on (and it turned out that I was right). This
is said, not in a spirit of one-upmanship, but only to note it as a rather odd fact that I, who am not usually very good
at the spot-the-killer-game, should happen to have pulled it off in a book that I enjoyed so much in most other respects.
Except one. Ms. McDermid relies too much on detailing her character’s autonomic responses as a way of showing us
how they feel. This quirk was so striking that I started making a list of the instances. After a while, the number of them
began to seem ridiculous. Within twenty-four pages, we got two mentions of somebody’s hair standing on end. Clammy
skin was reported twice within about fifty pages. Sprinkled here and there, we got: excitement rising like bile in somebody’s
throat, involuntary shivers, a buzz of adrenalin, a fizz of frustration in somebody’s head, somebody’s being flushed
with sudden anger, sweat breaking out on an upper lip, sweat in the small of someone's back, inward shudders, tremors
of emotion, dizziness from relief, quickening of a pulse, vibrating apprehension, a "chilly shock of fear" that "spasmed"
in somebody’s chest, guilt washing over somebody....and so on.
So what’s my problem with all that? Well, apart from the fact that most of these expressions border on cliché, the frequent repetition of this kind of detail begins to seem like an idiosyncrasy on the
part of the writer. You begin to wonder what causes it. Is it just that she can’t think of any other way to convey her
characters’ feelings? Or is she, as a person, particularly hung-up on these kinds of physical responses to situations?
Such questions interfere with my focus on the story.
Skinny Dip by Carl Hiassen, 2004
This one starts with a great premise. During a romantic idyll on a cruise ship near Florida, a guy tosses his wife overboard.
Against all odds, she survives (it helps that she was a champion college swimmer). She now plots how to make his life
miserable by her appearances from the beyond. She also wants to solve the mystery about why he wanted to get rid of her.
In some ways the writing is very effective, in some ways not. The author makes skillful use of what I call the
"hesitation step" narration: he keeps teasing you with bits of information, not filling out the details until later. However,
it’s not very plausible that people keep surviving murder attempts. Only one person actually dies, and that’s
near the end of the book. Then the novel peters out in a tying-up of loose ends, with no further suspense.
Maybe it’s not supposed to be a real mystery, then, just a lot of fun?
Margaret Cannon, the Globe and Mail’s expert in mysteries, cites Carl Hiassen as a supremely funny author.
I found a certain sardonic humour in this book but nothing laugh-inducing. Much of it was so exaggerated as to be
ludicrous rather than amusing: for instance, an ape-like goon whose skin, we’re constantly told, is covered in a thick
hairy pelt. And yet, this implausible character supposedly develops a poignant relationship with an elderly woman. A detective’s
pet pythons escape and he makes only cursory attempts to find them. A neighbour of the detective’s is so bitchy as to
What bothered me most of all, though, was the character of the scumbag husband. Presumably, he was supposed to be so awful
that all you could do was laugh at him. But I had the uneasy feeling that the author felt many readers would want to believe
that the world really does produce such horrible people. Maybe, but I don’t want to read about them.
All the Flowers Are Dying by Lawrence Block, 2005
Lawrence Block’s "Matt Scudder" ranks up there with my favourite detectives. I like Scudder’s low-key way of
proceeding, what he calls the school of GOYAKOD detection: get off your ass and knock on doors. His grounded, AA
approach to life has an authentic feel. And he uses simple but clever tricks for getting what he wants from people.
In this book, we are confronted with two stories that, at first, don’t seem to have any connection. Scudder has been
asked by a woman friend in AA to check on a mysterious man who's dating her. The other story involves a guy who’s sentenced
to be executed, within a matter of days, for the sexual abuse and murder of three young boys. He claims he’s innocent.
A sympathetic psychologist who’s doing a special research project comes to interview him on death row.
The stories, not unexpectedly, do connect eventually but I found this to be a very weak Matt Scudder outing. You begin
to sense that something’s going wrong when you run into filler on subjects like science fiction and baseball. Scudder’s
relationship with his wife Elaine, formerly a high-class call girl, feels tired. His sidekick, TJ, a former street kid who
has turned out to be something of a genius in the stock market, gets really annoying with his pounding away at his
hip-hop lingo. The conversations with the AA friends come across as fresh and original but the kibitzing with cronies in Manhattan
bars sounds stale, particularly when a phony Irish accent comes to the fore. Plus, I found the emphasis on gore and explicit
violence a falling-off in tone for a Scudder novel. (Could it be that author Block figures this is what the public demands
What’s more troubling in a mystery, though, is that the major crime at issue relates to previous Scudder stories.
If you don’t remember them, this one doesn’t have much resonance. I don’t know whether it’s a reflection
Scudder’s age (mid 60s) or Lawrence Block’s writing skills, but there doesn’t seem to be much narrative
energy left in the Scudder scenario. For me, this one ended with a "who-cares?" whimper.
River of Darkness by Rennie Airth, 1999
We’re in rural England, just after the First World War. Several members of one family of the local aristocracy
have been slaughtered in their mansion on the hill. The common folk are all abuzz. Even more so, when similar atrocities
start happening to grandees in other locales.
At first, I found this book appealing in its depiction of police investigations in the context of slow-moving English country
life. The ambiance and the era are well conveyed. Mind you, a list of place names on one page almost sounds like a parody
of the genre: Craydon, Godalming, Farnham, Guildford, Horsham, Dorking. But I was willing to go along with them. One particularly
touching scene really impressed me: the sensitive way the detective befriended a little girl who had been mute since
seeing her elders murdered. It was marvellous to watch how his gentleness and kindness brought her out of her nightmare.
Sad to say, though, this was a book that I had to abandon after about two hundred pages. It was shot-through with far too
much cliché, purple prose and hokey intellectuality.
To begin with, there’s the detective and his crowd. Not only is he carrying a cloud of gloom around with him because
of what he experienced during the war, but his wife and little daughter have been carried off by the famous flu epidemic.
Can we please, occasionally, have a detective who isn’t saddled with melodramatic baggage? Then there’s one of
the detective’s superiors who keeps interfering in the case. In the five scenes where he appears (as far as I read),
this sententious pooh-bah does nothing but strut and fume and pound his chest in attempts to undermine our hero’s confidence.
You wonder how the author can think we might fall for such obvious contriving. And let’s not forget the eager young
disciple who follows our hero around. The neophyte’s eagerness leads him to make mistakes, of course, but we know he
has a good heart and he’ll turn out ok, thanks to the paternal vigilance of his boss.
Given that this is early in the 20th century, there’s a bit of a flurry about the new theories
of Sigmund Freud. Some of the personnel are all agog. My problem is that the author himself seems fascinated in a ghoulish
way with all this kinky stuff about what sex can cause people to do. Hence the title, referring to the springs of murky desire
welling up in all human interaction.
Speaking of which, the author has chosen to describe some love-making in explicit, almost clinical detail. Not to be a
prude, but I don’t think you can have that in a novel of Edwardian sensibilities. If you’re trying to convey the
old-world feel of an amorous tryst, you’ve broken the spell entirely when you start referring to semen. Nor do I think
you can have a female doctor in that era who is as liberated and relaxed about her sexuality as Germaine Greer.
Other irritations in the writing: Inevitably, you can’t write about such a place and time without acknowledging the
deep-seated class consciousness but I wish an author would somehow distance himself from it, not give the impression that
it’s the divinely-ordained order of things. Similarly with the militarism of the culture. The detective, without any
sense of reproof from the writer, admits to a feeling of shame that his dad didn’t die in the war. Someone has
a premonition of a child’s death two days before it happens. (We’re supposed to take that sort of thing seriously?)
Thunder is conjured up to underline how angry someone is.
Worst of all, when we start following the sex-crazed killer, we get "a tidal bore of emotion that throbbed at his nerve
ends, making his skin prickle and burn as though lava flowed in his veins." A few pages later, the "beast stirring within
him" makes its "insistent" demands, causing the man to shift, in order to ease "the pressure in his groin."
If you can sit through another 150 pages of this without some major shifting in the direction of the garbage pail, you’re
a better man than I.
Cold Pursuit by T. Jefferson Parker, 2003
There’s something to be said for a straight-forward crime novel – nothing fancy or over-written or over-reaching
about it. That’s what you get here.
Pete Braga, a rich old San Diego businessman, has been found bludgeoned to death in his den. Homicide cop Tom McMichael
gets the case. Trouble is, there’s bad blood between the Braga and the McMichael clans, going back a couple of generations.
Still, McMichael doggedly does his duty.
The writing is smooth and clear, making for easy reading. I found there was a bit too much back story about the family
feud. Some of the data about the tuna fishing industry and the local airport authority, both of which the victim was involved
in, felt like filler. But the story is good, with just enough suspense and intrigue to keep things bubbling along. Some particularly
interesting insights into human nature crop up in a scene where McMichael is discussing life and stuff with a cop who’s
Given the quality of the writing, one detail struck me as a surprising lapse: two guys in a prison yard are walking in
circles, thinking they’re talking in secret, but a guard stationed in a window has supposedly been following their conversation
by reading their lips. How could he do that? If they were walking in circles, they would, presumably have had their backs
to him for about half of the conversation, wouldn’t they?
To The Power of Three by Laura Lippman, 2005
A shooting takes place in the girls’ bathroom of a high school in Baltimore County. It seems that just three girls
are involved. One has been shot dead. The presumed shooter has shot herself in the face and is apparently dying. The least
seriously injured girl has been shot in the foot.
This book scores high on the obsessive quality (which, after all, is one of the main ingredients of a good mystery). The
investigation keeps circling around and around that bathroom incident, as the police and the school authorities try to determine
exactly what happened. The girl who was shot in the foot has given her version of the incident but it doesn’t ring true.
While that bathroom scene occupies the centre of attention, ripples of narrative extend out to include relevant information
about the lives of other students, parents and the cops.
And yet, I almost discarded this book after the first few pages. There’s a quality to it that I can only describe
as "girly". (Sorry about the apparent sexism but I can’t think of any other way to put it.) The first three pages discuss,
with utmost seriousness, fashion choices of teenage girls in terms of tote bags and knapsacks, for godsakes! At several points,
the narrative is interrupted for flashbacks to show how the three girls involved in the shooting were very close as children.
I could only skim these passages, because they looked too cloying.
It’s not just the subject matter that put me off. The narrative style often falls into a lame-ass tone that sounds
chatty, gossipy and catty. As if somebody’s just lying back and running off at the mouth. So we get sweeping generalizations
like "Lots of people at school wanted to be on her good side..." and "If a boy was heard to remark...." and "All the drama
students could see that...." and "They all assumed that...." You get the feeling that the writer is lazily sketching broad
outlines rather than bothering to show us individuals and their specific responses.
One thing that kept me reading – apart from curiosity about the shooting – was that the writer occasionally
comes up with fine insights. She talks about a family in which the members were so close and affectionate with each other
that they needed outsiders around just to confirm how special the family was. A gay boy reflects on the fact that he
used to bring all his problems to his mom, until he began to see that there were some problems she couldn’t fix for
him. At another point, that same character emits a theatrical sigh and is surprised to find himself feeling genuine emotion
In the end, though, there weren’t enough of these flashes of brilliance. The solution to the mystery, when it
finally came, didn’t offer much compensation for prowling through so much iffy writing.
The Two Minute Rule by Robert Crais, 2006
Max Holman, a famous bank robber, gets out of prison after serving his ten-year sentence. He has been estranged from his
son for many years and doesn’t know his son has become a cop. But, on the very day of the dad’s release from prison,
he learns that his son has just been gunned down and killed in an ambush, along with three other cops. Dad’s long-dormant
paternal feelings come to the fore and he’s bent on revenge.
This terrific set-up means that you watch Holman’s every step, wondering whether he’s going to cross the line
back into criminal territory. He’s trying very hard to live right and stay sober, he’s following the advice of
his well-meaning mentors, but most of his contacts are in the criminal world and his default mode is to act outside the law.
Author Robert Crais has created a very sympathetic character in Holman and his renewed relationship with the FBI agent who
put him in jail years ago is fascinating. The writing is so good that some examples of prosaic "telling" leapt out at me:
"Holman felt better now that he had spoken with Pollard" and "Holman had a plan. He thought he could pull it off...." But
these flaws were so few that they didn’t spoil the overall effect. The climactic scene roils with confusion and
excitement and you learn that the "two minute rule" as applied to bank robberies means a hell of a lot more than you imagined.
Portobello by Ruth Rendell, 2008 [This relatively recent one happened to be available on the "quick read" shelf]
This one’s not so much a whodunnit as a who’s-gonna-do-what? The various candidates for the "who"
include: a toff who owns an art gallery cum antique shop in the Portobello area of London; his 40-year-old girlfriend who
is a medical doctor; a weird young man whose estranged father pays for the son's upkeep; a shiftless layabout; the
layabout’s uncle with whom he lives; the layabout’s ex and her current boyfriend; not to mention various other
hangers-on. Given that Ruth Rendell’s such an accomplished story-teller, it’s entertaining to watch how she intertwines
the affairs of these disparate characters.
But it’s in the development of the characters that Ms. Rendell’s writing is somewhat less satisfying. Mind
you, she handles the layabout well, as always with such characters. To the casual observer, he would be an out-and-out sleaze,
but Ms. Rendell gives him an inner life that shows a surprisingly decent streak, one that wins our sympathy. Some of the upper
class characters don’t fare so well. The weird young guy who’s estranged from his father has an interesting moment
when we realize that, although he’s going insane, he quite calculatingly feigns schizophrenia. When his character completely
loses touch with reality, though, he loses my attention.
The most problematic character is the owner of the art gallery. We’re told that he’s an addictive type –
he’s been through booze and drugs – and now he’s hooked on sugar-less lozenges. This is supposed to be such
a big deal that his obsession takes up pages and pages of the book. At one point, I wondered if the effect was meant to be
comical. But no, this addiction has serious repercussions. The odd thing is, I can imagine that some such apparently trivial
quirk could, indeed, have dire consequences in a person’s life. Unfortunately, Ms. Rendell doesn’t make this guys
situation believable. It comes off as trite.
Normally, we at Dilettante’s Diary don’t nitpick about editing errors in books, but there are examples
here of what might be a new syndrome in publishing. We all know that books aren’t getting the careful editing that they
used to. But one expects that certain writers have achieved such distinction that they would want to make damn sure that their
books are free of typos and such. Problem is, some of them may have reached the advanced state of maturity that they don’t
have the mental acuity any longer to oversee the sloppy work of the editors of a more carefree generation.
I’m not talking her about a slip such as the reference to "a suger-free sweet" [sic] in Portobello. That kind
of thing happens in any book. What puzzles me more are the inconsistencies and illogicalities. At one point, the doctor
is attending a drinks party at her boyfriend Eugene’s house. The festivities are interrupted by a call from one of her
patients. She fobs the patient off, telling him to phone later if he isn’t feeling better. The episode concludes
with: "She gave him Eugene’s number." Why? The patient had called her at Eugene’s. He must, then, already have
the number, mustn’t he? Unless, he had called her on her cell phone but there was no such indication.
In another episode, we have the layabout’s uncle leaving his house to go to the meeting point where a coach
is going to pick him up for an outing with his church group. A few pages later, though, we have the layabout lying upstairs
in the uncle’s house, listening to the diesel throb of the coach’s engine.
It scares me to think that one of our best mystery writers can’t keep enough control over her material to prevent