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AUTUMN MYSTERIES 2020

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AUTUMN MYSTERIES 2020
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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
July 18/13
Summer Reading 2013
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The Artist Project 2013
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A Toast to 2012
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Art Toronto 2012
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2012
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MIMC
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La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version
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The Artist Project 2012
Academy Awards Show 2012
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How Fiction Works
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Sex for Saints
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Housekeeping
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2009
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Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
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CBC Radio -- "The New Two"
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The Jesus Sayings
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Head to Head
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Me In Manhattan
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Reviewed here:  No Shred of Evidence, The Disappeared, The Red Road, Metropolis, The Missing File, Known to Evil, King and Maxwell, The Final Detail (All mysteries)

The recent ban on socializing has presented an opportunity to catch up with some highly recommended mystery/thriller writers I’d never tried.

No Shred of Evidence (Mystery) by Charles Todd, 2016

The "Charles Todd" billing, I find, is a pen name. But there’s no mystery about the authorship. This series of books is written by Caroline and Charles Todd, who happen to be mother and son. Sounds a bit cozy but there’s no reason why that combination should militate against good writing.

In No Shred of Evidence, we’re on the north coast of Cornwall in the period right after the end of the First World War. Four genteel young ladies have been rowing on the river and they suddenly notice a man signalling frantically from his boat, which appears to be sinking under him. As quickly as they can, they row towards him and try to help him. One of the women extends an oar for him to grab. Meanwhile, a gent on shore has seen what’s happening. He jumps into the water and helps the women pull the drowning man into their boat. Surprise, surprise: when they reach shore, the Good Samaritan accuses them of trying to murder the man who was rescued! The accuser claims that one woman bashed the drowning man on the head with the oar. While the investigation proceeds, the four women are confined to the house of the father of one of them, since he is a local official. Scotland Yard’s Inspector Ian Rutledge is sent to take charge of the case.

Mysteries proliferate here: why would the women have had a motive to kill the drowning man? Why, on the other hand, would the rescuer have had a motive to accuse the women of murder? And why are other people from the area starting to disappear or turn up dead?

This is the kind of slow-moving, old fashioned mystery that lays on lots of atmosphere – village life, family rivalries and such. In other words, it’s a satisfying read if you like that kind of thing. You can take it as a reprieve from the world of cell phones and Internet. But I found some of the clues rather improbable because of their triviality. For instance, someone’s location is tracked via a trash bin that produces a scrap of paper with a fragment of a picture of a hotel from a magazine advertisement. And would anyone really think that a murderer might leave scraps of fabric from a certain gown at the site of all the murders? But the biggest problem with the book, for me, is that it’s never possible to believe that our four nice, perfectly proper young ladies, might actually be in danger of the death by hanging that supposedly threatens them.

 

The Disappeared (Mystery) by C.J. Box, 2018

Actually, I think I did once read a book by this author, but I can’t find any notes on it, so we’ll take this as a fresh start.

People who read this series know that Joe Pickett, a Wyoming game warden, tends to get drawn into mysteries one way or another. In this case, the governor has asked him to look into the case of a British media celebrity. She had been holidaying at a luxury ranch resort but missed her flight back to England and hasn’t been heard from for months. Meanwhile, Joe’s pal, Nate Romanowksi, wants him to pull some strings to resolve a problem about the regulations over falconry. And something weird is going on at the local sawmill at night: strange smells are coming from the shack where nothing but sawdust should be burning. Could this have anything to do with the other two issues confronting Joe?

The book is nicely written, a pleasant read. Joe’s character – laid-back, honest, ordinary guy – is attractive. The plotting and pacing work well. The solutions to the mysteries have a satisfying, believable ring to them. I have only two problems with the book. The characters of the governor and his right-hand man are egregiously obnoxious. They never talk to Joe without serving up insults and acrimony. Their antagonism seems too heavy-handed to be believable. And Joe’s friend, Nate is presumably meant to be somewhat amusing and attractive in his loose-cannon way. Granted, he’s smart and he gives Joe some clever tips, but it’s tiresome the way he always does exactly what he’s been warned not to do.

 

The Red Road (Mystery) by Denise Mina, 2013

I found it difficult to discern what was going on in this book. To do so, perhaps you have to have read the series and become familiar with the characters. Right to the end of the book, characters were frequently referring to other characters whose names meant nothing to me. The story takes place in Glasgow and one of the problems is that the narrative hops back and forth between our current decade and the 1990s (the death of Princess Diana serves as a touchstone for this era).

One of the main characters is a young woman who, when she was more or less a street kid back in the 90s, murdered a couple of men who were pestering her. Having done time, she’s now working as a nanny in the home of a well-to-do lawyer; it was his father who defended her on the murder charges. But the son has exiled himself to an island where he expects someone to assassinate him. The jacket copy on the book says the man’s plight has something to do with money laundering. Oh really? That wasn’t a thread that I picked up. Alex Morrow, the detective who is (apparently) the star of Denise Mina’s books, is investigating the case of a guy who’s in jail but whose fingerprints have been found in blood splashed around the site of a recent murder. To give Morrow more to worry about, her reputation as a cop is threatened by revelations about her brother who has had connections to the criminal world.

The writing is taut, the characterizations are sharp, scenes can be alternately poignant or frightening. I can see how Ms. Mina’s writing can become addictive for her fans. For me, the book was like watching a single episode in a tv series that could be gripping at times but that, for the most part, left you struggling to get your bearings.

Metropolis (Mystery) by Philip Kerr, 2019

This is the last in the series of books starring Bernie Gunther, since the author, Philip Kerr, died, unfortunately, at the age of sixty-two in 2018. Strange to say, though, this late book appears to be about the beginning of Bernie Gunther’s career as a gumshoe. It’s set in Berlin in the late 1920s and Bernie is just learning the ropes.

First, prostitutes are being killed, their bodies abandoned on the streets; then vagrants and destitute veterans of the First World War are being killed. Someone purporting to be the murderer is sending letters to the papers claiming that these killings are part of a much-needed effort to clean up a city and a culture that have become debauched and disreputable. It’s interesting to see how the mood of a disillusioned citizenry can gradually build towards support for a strong-armed fascism such as the Nazis came to represent. However, I began to find it a bit much that Bernie and all the "right" people are so obviously on the correct side of the battle as we would see it today. Their minds and actions are so definitely commendable from our 21st century point of view. Were issues really that clear cut for people back in the day?

 

The Missing File (Mystery) by D. A. Mishani; translation from the Hebrew by Steven Cohen; 2013

A teenage boy has gone missing from his home in Tel Aviv. His mother comes to the police station to report the situation to detective Avraham Avraham. By way of trying to reassure her, he points out that Israel doesn’t produce much in the way of fictional murder mysteries because, in real life, there aren’t many mysteries about the murders that happen there. Usually a case is resolved quite simply. (This theme about the lack of mystery in Israel becomes something of a mordant joke running through the book.) However, Avraham gradually starts to think there may actually be something strange underlying this case. I find him a likable detective: somewhat morose and lonely, somewhat disillusioned, but hopeful, honest, decent and kind towards his parents.

The writing is engaging and compelling. The quiet, but intense pace of the book reminded me of Georges Simenon’s mysteries set in Paris and featuring Inspector Jules Maigret. The gradual investigation of people’s private lives and the unraveling of the fabric of respectability that seems to hold society together make for absorbing reading. The solution to the mystery is utterly convincing and there’s even a startling twist in the last couple of pages. The book is so good that it surprised me to find that this is D.A. Mishani’s first book. But it turns out that he’s an editor of crime fiction for Keter Books in Israel. Clearly, that job has taught him a thing or two.

 

Known to Evil (Mystery) by Walter Mosley, 2010

Again, if you have read other books in the series, you’ll be better placed to appreciate this one. To me, there’s something of a mystery about Leonid McGill, the star of the series. It seems he has recently converted to the honest life after his former involvement in criminal activities. Is that what the previous books were about? How would you write mysteries focussing on one of the bad guys? Oh well, that sort of question doesn’t interfere greatly with an appreciation of this story.

It starts with McGill’s receiving a phone call from Alphonse Rinaldo, a big shot who is one of those behind-the-scenes fixers in New York. Nobody knows exactly what his job is but he has a position of great influence in the city’s bureaucracy; he’s the go-to guy if you want to get things done. Now he wants McGill to check on a certain young woman, to make sure she’s okay. He won’t tell McGill what his connection to the woman is or why he’s concerned about her. McGill doesn’t want to get involved but Rinaldo is the kind of honcho that you can’t say no to.

On showing up at the woman’s apartment, Rinaldo walks into a murder scene and finds himself a primary suspect. All kinds of mayhem and mystery ensue. McGill’s an engaging character: witty, intellectual in some ways, but also having the smarts of a street scrapper with a no-nonsense take on the underworld. He can make startling pronouncements, such as: "Again, I was reminded of the innocence of most career criminals." The plot moves quickly, with lots of complications. The only drawback to the book, from my point of view, is that McGill relies heavily on his contacts in the criminal world to do favours and to help him out of fixes. He always knows some guy who can solve the conundrum that’s facing him. I suppose it’s fair to accept that as being consistent with the world that McBride inhabits, but it’s a long way from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s style of elegant sleuthing.

 

King and Maxwell (Mystery/Thriller) by David Baldacci, 2013

In one of the interviews in the Books section of the New York Times, this author was mentioned as a favourite by no less an authority than Bill Clinton. I can certainly see why David Baldacci’s writing has achieved such enormous success, including a tv series featuring the stars of this book, former Secret Service agents Sean King and Michelle Maxwell. The pacing of the book is expert, the stakes are high, the thrills super-charged to the point that this ranks as a mystery that is also a thriller. King and Maxwell are nearly killed three times in the book; that’s probably about average in a thriller these days.

It starts with an American man making a clandestine delivery of a secret payload somewhere in the Middle East but the delivery is hijacked and the man runs for his life. Back in the US, King and Maxwell encounter the man’s teenage son staggering along the roadside, looking like he wants to kill himself after hearing from the military that his father has been killed. Only thing is, the boy subsequently receives a coded email message from his dad that was sent after the time that his dad had reportedly died. Having become friendly with King and Maxwell when they picked him up at the side of the road, the boy asks them to try to find out the truth about his dad. I found King and Maxwell’s concern for the boy genuine and the characterization of him is both sympathetic and realistic.

One of the most intriguing things about the book is that, from time to time, we’re following the villain who is the mastermind behind all the wrong doing. We gradually learn why he’s doing what he’s doing but we don’t actually find out what it is that he’s doing until nearly the end of the book.

I don’t know anything about King and Maxwell as portrayed on tv, but I found their relationship cloying at times. Some of their dialogue can be dull, in the expositional way, but their banter, especially the sexual stuff, verges on being too cutesy for me. King’s teasing Maxwell for the mess in her vehicle gets monotonous. But the two of them acquit themselves admirably when challenged and their dialogue is impressive and powerful in the scenes where military officials are trying to stop them from finding out what has happened to the boy’s missing dad. Their detective work depends an awful lot on the cooperation of a friend who has phenomenal skill at hacking into relatively inaccessible computer files. Not exactly an unimaginable device these days but it’s still a far cry from the kind of mystery where everything depends on the gumshoe’s own smarts.

 

The Final Detail (Mystery) by Harlan Coben, 1999

Confession – this isn’t by any means a new author. Harlan Coben is one of my favourites. I’ve even read one other of his Myron Bolitar mysteries. However, when I saw this new looking paperback on the library shelf, I couldn’t resist.

As we know from the previous Bolitar book I’ve read, Home (reviewed on the DD page dated Feb 9/17), he’s a former athlete who was sidelined by an injury and now he’s a sports agent. He’s just returned from a holiday in the Caribbean because one of his clients, a pro baseball player, has been murdered. Worst of all, Bolitar’s business partner Esperanza, has been arrested for the murder. In spite of all the evidence pointing to her, she won’t say a thing that will help Bolitar to exonerate her. He’s determined to prove her innocence even though she insists that he not to get involved.

One of the things that makes Mr. Coben such a good writer is wit. I love Bolitar’s many self-deprecating wisecracks. These come usually in his thoughts as we’re following him in what’s known as close third person narration. For instance, he’s looking at a photo of a young couple and all he can think is that they’re now dead. Then comes: "Deep Thoughts by Myron Bolitar." Bolitar’s first conversation with someone in a kinky sex club crackles with entertaining electricity.

Mr. Coben is so deft at the keyboard that he can lay on the social satire thickly – about a pretentious club, for instance – and yet the scene can suddenly become so touching that it brings you close to tears. The book includes some wonderful passages about the meaning of baseball in a boy’s life and how it makes for bonding with his dad. Speaking of whom, Myron’s relationship with his parents is admirable. On their own terms, the parents are like a classic tv comedy couple. Bolitar’s rich friend, Win, who solves many of Bolitar’s problems by means of his, Win’s, wealth, is fascinatingly enigmatic with his sardonic humour and his incisive intelligence. As with all Mr. Coben’s books we get some thought-provoking observations on different topics. For instance, one woman gives a fairly reasonable justification of her love of hunting. In another passage, a woman explores the way other women respond to women who have large breasts.

Some examples of marvellous writing:

- "Both men wore turtlenecks so high and lose they looked like something awaiting circumcision."

- [When a sleazy character offers offers Bolitar a reptilian smile] "Myron let it land on the floor and watched it slither away."

- [About detective work in real life] "The answers never come with cries of ‘Eureka!’ You stumble toward them, often in total darkness. You stagger through an unlit room at night, tripping over the unseen, lumbering forward, bruising your shins, toppling over and righting yourself, feeling your way across the walls and hoping your hand happens upon the light switch."

- "The line between good and evil is not so different from the foul line on a baseball field. It’s often made of stuff as flimsy as lime. It tends to fade over time. It needs to be constantly redrawn. And if enough players trample on it, the line becomers smeared and blurred to the point where fair is foul and foul is fair, where good and evil become indistinguishable from each other."

Any reservations about the book? A few. Some extreme violence in it doesn’t seem warranted. Frequent references to women named Jessica and Brenda can bewilder the reader who doesn’t know Bolitar’s history with them. The solution to the death of the ball player is complex to say the least. Is it far-fetched, in terms of the motives and the machinations of the perpetrator? Perhaps. But Mr. Coben goes a long way towards making it pass scrutiny. Even if plausibility is a bit questionable, there’s a certain pleasure to following the twists and turns of the fiendish criminality involved.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com