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Reviewed here: books by Michael Connelly, Thomas H. Cook, Edna O'Brien, Ed McBain, Reginald Hill and Ruth Rendell.

Lost Light by Michael Connelly (2003)

For my money, Michael Connelly's in the top rank of US crime writers. His writing may seem a bit stodgy compared to some of the sexier, funnier stuff that's out there but his plots are well-structured and his solutions, although sometimes complicated, are never unbelievable. Best of all, his prose is clear and intelligent; you never have to re-read a sentence to get the drift.

     Like all his novels, this one is a good read. But I notice a falling off in the quality of the writing from the level of, say, Bloodwork (which I consider to be his masterpiece). Too many paragraphs here chock full of simple, declarative sentences with the first person singular subject. You expect this kind of thing in a writer like Sue Grafton (along the lines of: "I jumped into the shower, I washed my hair, I dried it, then I grabbed a sandwich and a soda....") but you expect better from Mr. Connelly. On the other hand, this book is larded with some clumsy metaphors that give the impression he's striving for literary effect. He should abandon the attempt. His writing is good enough without reaching for quality.

 

Instruments of Night byThomas H. Cook (1998)

This author came highly touted by the Globe and Mail as one of the best in the field. In this book, a fictional writer of mysteries is invited to a posh artists' retereat on the Hudson River to investigate the unsolved murder of a girl on the premises 50 years ago. While prowling around, he's constantly thinking about his own fictional detective and about a horrible crime that he, the writer, witnessed as a child. I found the writing strained and over-wrought. There's a certain cleverness about the explanation of the precise circumstances surrounding the girl's death but the purported motives reach back into some of the most notorious evils of the 20th century. Far-fetched and implausible, if you ask me. The only appealing aspect of the book was that estate on the Hudson. Any sensible person would have got busy with sketch pad and watercolours, never mind all that evil carry-on.

 

In The Forest by Edna O'Brien (2002)

Is Edna O'Brien trying to be Ruth Rendell? What a surprise that the woman who has given us so many sly and sensitive novels about the complicated workings of the human heart should turn to horror.

    Ms. O'Brien certainly does dish it out in this novel about a man who returns from prison to terrorize the village where he grew up. Reading it on a rainy night, I jumped at every sound outside the window. A peculiar  Irishness about it all -- a vagueness and inefficiency that I take to be characteristic of that gentle land -- add an edge to the terror. In their kindly way, most folks don't want to provoke the villain; they want to send him on his way with a bit to eat and some prayers. The local guards (police) display an incompetence and carelessness that wouldn't be out of place in a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, except that the results here are anything but funny.

     A couple of things about the book annoyed me. The spitefulness and vindictiveness at the end seem way over the top. Don't these Irish people understand anything about mental illness? It's as if the first madman they encounter must be the devil incarnate. And the structure of the book creates difficulties. Most of the story is doled out in brief chapters, frequently introducing unfamiliar settings and characters. Ultimately, this has the effect of showing how the spreading horror involves more and more people. Initially, though it can be irritating trying to figure out who they all are and how they fit into the story.

 

Gladly The Cross-Eyed Bear (1996) and Kiss (1992) by Ed McBain

Having never read the enormously popular Ed McBain, I scooped these two books out of the library one weekend when a bad cold offered an excuse for a binge of easy reading. Just what the doctor ordered. They're professionally written; they clip right along. Most important of all, the solutions to the mysteries, while tricky and surprising, are plausible. Mr. McBain revels in courtroom procedures which I, not being an expert, found hard to follow at times. It also appears to be a habit of his to incllude a secondary plot which has little or nothing to do with the main one. This offends my sense of the artistic integrity of a work but, what the hell, it makes for good reading.

The Last Dance by Ed McBain (1999)

(Ok, I know it's a pseudonym, but I can't remember his real name)

I raced through this one during a recent spell of solitude. A middle-aged woman discovers her poor old dad dead of a heart attack but, of course, things ain't what they seem. The context of an upcoming Broadway production added lots of appeal for me. I also really enjoy Mr. McBain's wonderful dialogue for sleazy low-life types. 

     A couple of quibbles, though. Why does he describe in minute detail what every characters is wearing? It doesn't add anything to the characters but comes off as boring sartorial pedantry. Does he do it merely to add bulk to the book? All writers of thrillers do that in one way or another but this mannerism irks after a while. Also, this book ended rather suddenly. It seemed to me that the implausible connection of two characters deep in the back story was not adequately explained, unless I missed the explanation.

The Last Best Hope by Ed McBain (1998)

Not as satisfying as his books reviewed above. While it zips along in his usual snappy style, it's difficult to maintain focus because the story keeps flipping back and forth between his familiar 87th precinct up north and some bad guys and their pursuers down in Florida. Even down south, where most of the action takes place, there are too many different groups that have a corner on the action. It's clever how he brings them all together in a well-plotted climax but it feels more like a movie outline than a novel.

Fat Ollie's Book by Ed McBain (2002)

Some jerk pencilled a note inside the back cover of the library copy: "This is not his best." Judging on the basis of the ones I've read, I'd have to say the jerk was right.

     In the main story, an up-and-coming politician is shot dead onstage during a rehearsal for a rally. This aspect of the book clips along reasonably well, although the solution to the mystery depends on some pretty simple observations by a witness previously overlooked. A couple of other plots, barely connected to the main one, don't offer much interest. One of them takes up about one quarter of the book with some palaver about the theft of a manuscript written by Detective Ollie Weeks. Large excerpts from his novel are presented but a few quick glimpses revealed nothing to make me want to read any more of them. Weeks' gluttony is repulsive and implausible in the extreme, whereas his bigotry, if not implausible (unfortunately), is just as repugnant. Either way, he doesn't make for very good reading.

 

Bones and Silence (1990) and Dialogues of the Dead (2001) by Reginald Hill

The cover blurbs, quotes from the New York Times, hail Reginald Hill as "the master of form and the sorcerer of style" and his work as "prototypical of the British detective novel at its best." Having heard this kind of thing about him for a while, I thought these two books might be just the thing for a cozy weekend read.

     I could find nothing to like in either of them. As in many mysteries these days, much of the text is filled with kibitzing among the detectives working on the case. Apparently, we're supposed to really enjoy this police station humour. Maybe you have to know the characters from previous books. Then, there's the cloying chit-chat with the spouses. None of it real or engaging.

     In the earlier book, Mr. Hill has hit on the device of having a Yorkshire town involved in a staging of the mediaeval mystery plays. What is it with these British authors who think that normal, sensible adults necessarily go into a frenzy about putting on plays? Not that the subject hasn't been well-handled. Doris Lessing's marvellous Love Again features a group of actors. And isn't one of Virgina Woolf's novels all about some kids putting on a play? Here, the whole project seems unbearably twee. That's probably because most of the townspeople involved are nothing but cliches. I'd read more than a hundred pages but I had to bail out when it looked like Mr. Hill was contriving to have the chief detective cast as God in the mystery play and the chief suspect as Satan.

     As for the more recent book, I couldn't get more than two or three chapters into it. The book starts with some journalists judging a short story contest. Nearly every submission, as Mr. Hill would have it, must needs be ludicrously bad. Why this contempt? The answer, I fear, lurks in an unpleasant fact about Old Blighty: you should never under-estimate the enduring power of the British class system. It seems that certain British writers of less than the front rank cannot write about certain kinds of people without conveying a thinly-veiled superiority complex. No doubt these authors have the best of intentions and think of themselves as jolly good fellows but their ruminations on the lower classes are poisonous as far as I'm concerned.

The Rottweiler by Ruth Rendell (2003)
 
    It's a pleasure to report that one of the great dames of British crime fiction is still churching them out at the top of her form -- almost.
    This one starts out as a typical whodunit, but soon we find ourselves following the murderer's point of view. As usual, Ms. Rendell excels at creating the inner world of her characters. I found her  particularly convincing in her description of the relationship between a developmentally delayed young man and an unmarried aunt who is his only relative. The aunt genuinely cares about him but tries to keep him at some distance so that she can have a life of her own. Whether Ms. Rendell's depiction of the young man's somewhat blank state of mind would be considered scientifically accurate, I don't know,. but it certainly is plausible.
    For me, it's not the suspense that counts so much as the life of the people that Rendell conveys so captivatingly. Here, the cast assembles around an antique shop run by a refined widow. We are immersed in the comings and goings of central London, the shopping, the cups of tea, the chatting, the restaurant meals, the walks in the park.
    And yet, there are signs that Ms. Rendell is not quite at the top of  her game. This book falls short of the mastery of some of her earlier books. (For me two of the best are A Fateful Inversion and No Night Is Too Long, both written under the pseudonym "Barbara Vine".) Flaws of style make the reading bumpy at times, raising the spectre of an author sitting back in a deck chair dictating, rather than huddling over the keyboard with a sharp eye for clarity and precision.
    And why is it that some British women authors can't help betraying their class consciousness when writing about certain kinds of people? (The New Yorker once noted that Iris Murdoch couldn't write about a prostitute without giving her chipped nail polish.) Talking about a woman for whom she clearly has little sympathy, Ms. Rendell has to notice that the woman has folded the edge of her shawl to hide the fact that she burned it when ironing it. So what? That can happen to anybody. You can hear the "tsk, tsk," of the upper class matron faced with this breach of proper decorum.
    And I found the police in this book somewhat cartoonish and gross. That comes as something of a surprise from a writer who treats the constabulary with loving reverence in her series of novels about Inspector Wexford.

Coming soon: ?? (It's a mystery!)