Last Car to Elysian Fields by James Lee Burke, 2003
I love the ambiance of these Dave Robicheaux novels set in Louisiana. You’ve got your motor boats puttering back
and forth on the bayou, your mist rising from the water, your `moss dripping from the trees, moody sunsets, lots of rain.
Then there are the marvellous characters, starting with Robicheaux , a homicide detective with the Iberia sheriff’s
department. A sad, recovering alcoholic, he goes to morning mass, then visits the grave of his wife, where he prays the rosary.
To this hypercritical reader, the Catholic stuff sounds authentic for the most part, if a bit superficial. When author James
Lee Burke tries to get into some deeper soul stuff regarding a young priest committed to social justice, the results aren’t
quite so convincing. Mr. Burke does better with low-life characters. They fling around a very entertaining and colourfully
crass slang. One of the most engaging of them, in this book, is an Irish hit man whose religious scruples get in the way of
his getting the job done.
And yet, and yet.....there’s so damn much violence and evil on display. Robicheaux and his side-kick Clete Purcel
indulge in some pretty outrageous blow-ups at times. (Is the author thinking in terms of sales to the film industry?) The
main story concerns Robicheaux’s attempt to discover what happened to a black man, a legendary blues perfomer, who
disappeared in the fiendish penitentiary system years ago. He does find out and, believe me, it ain’t a pretty story.
Heaven forbid that I should ever lose my taste for crime and corruption, but there are times when you wish the world didn’t
look quite so bad.
Another problem with this book is the complex web of relationships among the characters – so complex, in fact, that
I had to go back to the beginning and write out a list to try to keep them straight, something that I haven’t done since
grade eleven. In just the first 25 pages, you meet thirteen important characters. For most of the book, I was able to keep
track of the inter-connections but, by the end, they were again eluding my grasp. One person ended up murdered and I didn’t
know why or by whom. The various twists in the plot weren't necessarily too tricky for a person of my limited intelligence
to follow. I think it’s more a question of the writer taking short cuts, almost as if he was getting tired, at this
point in his career, of the work of writing. I just needed a bit more detail, a bit more context to stitch things together
into a comprehensible pattern.
Flight of Aquavit by Anthony Bidulka, 2004
You could say that this book had the misfortune to arrive along with some masterpieces by better-known authors. It certainly
suffers from comparison. In Anthony Bidulka’s second Russell Quant mystery, Saskatoon’s gay detective has been
hired by a married man to find out who is blackmailing him. Seems hubby had sex with another man and somebody is threatening
to "out" him, with potentially disastrous consequences to his career and social standing. The story itself is good enough
and the solution, when it comes, is clever and surprising.
But I have trouble with the ways Russell gets there. There’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing around Saskatoon in
an amateurish way. Some of the subterfuges Russell resorts to seem highly implausible or inappropriate. He lets himself be
lured into dangerous situations that no sensible adult, let alone a detective, would fall for. Also, there’s a lot of
the monotonous "then-I-did-this-and-then-I-did-that" which dogs many first-person detective narratives. Russell has the habit,
every time he meets a new person, of listing in detail what he or she is wearing. Maybe this is supposed to be a humorous
comment on a gay man’s obsession with clothes but, somehow, the humour doesn’t come through to me.
And yet, I kept reading. There’s something likeable about Russell. He seems a pleasant chap to spend time with. He
has a self-deprecating attitude and a wry take on Saskatoon’s gay scene, such as it is. Maybe the point is that he’s
a fairly ordinary guy, if not a stellar detective. Which would be fine, except for something unfocused and diffuse about the
writing. About a third of the book involves Russell’s friends and his kooky mother who has come to stay for the holidays
– all of which is mildly entertaining but tends to detract from the mystery. It almost seems that Mr. Bidulka can’t decide
whether he wants to write a mystery or a novel about gay life in Saskatoon. As for the mystery, it may seem crass of me to
say this, but one of the problems could be that we don’t start out with a dead body. Most mysteries nowadays need a
killing early on to galvanize the detective – and the reader.
One Shot by Lee Child, 2005
To give you some idea of how intriguing this book is, we have to talk a bit about the plot. A sniper, shooting from a public
parking garage, takes out five people in a downtown plaza. This happens somewhere in an un-named town in the Midwest US. Loads
of physical evidence – fingerprints, bullet casings, clothing fragments – point conclusively to one James Barr
as the shooter. When he’s arrested, he insists that they’ve got the wrong guy and says, "Get Jack Reacher." But
when you find out what connects the two men, you’d think Reacher was the last person on earth that the accused would
call for. By then, the accused is in a coma so we’re left to figure out – along with Reacher – why the accused
might have sent for him.
That’s just the first few pages. From there on, the plotting gets more and more complicated – but never unbelievably
so. I’m simply bowled over; I bow to Lee Child: I do not know how he constructs such a clever, intricate plots. (Apparently,
this is his ninth Jack Reacher novel.) Reacher is a fascinating character. Like the Lone Ranger, he appears more or less out
of nowhere, does what he has to do, then vanishes back into nowheresville. Laconic and self-contained in the extreme, Reacher's
always just a bit taller, a bit tougher and a whole lot smarter than everybody he meets. Not exactly a realistic premise but
the marvel is that Lee Child makes you want to believe in Jack’s superiority. You begin to rely on his ability to get
out of trouble with tricks that seem just almost plausible. My only quibble would be that Mr. Child too often intersperses
conversations with sentences like, "Reacher remained silent," or "Reacher said nothing," or "Reacher didn’t respond."
Let’s face it, we all fantasize about being the strong, silent type of guy but nobody could get away with being that
One of the measures of good thriller writing is that it forces me to use a card or a folded piece of paper to obscure the
rest of the page, so that my eye won’t be tempted to jump ahead to see what’s coming. My "blinder" was ever at
hand in this reading. In fact, it was in constant use during the terrific climax that keeps up an amazing tension for at least
Bangkok 8 by John Burdett, 2003
This one must have appeared on my list at some point when I was looking for something different. That’s certainly
what I got. Sonchai Jitpleecheep is a Bangkok cop and he’s investigating the grisly murder (cobras) of a US Marine.
Trouble is, Sonchai’s partner cop – whom he loved dearly – was also killed in the same encounter with the
reptiles and Sonchai’s thoroughly pissed. But he has to somehow reconcile his need for revenge with his Buddhist beliefs.
See, Sonchai is a good cop. By way of repentence for some shit that went down in the past, Sonchai intends to mend his karma
by never taking bribes or getting sucked into any kind of wrong doing. Which is rather difficult, given that all of his colleagues,
apart from his murdered partner are on the take. Not to mention the fact that Sonchai’s investigations take him into
the teeming bar and brothel scene of Bangkok, an area that he knows very well, his mother being a retired prostitute.
I’ve seldom – maybe never – read a book in which every page is loaded with fascinating information about
a world and a way of life very different from mine. Sonchai lives in an eight-by-ten-foot windowless hovel, with a pipe for
air and a hole in the corner for a toilet. To get around town, he mostly takes motorcycle taxis driven by reckless drug
dealers. The world that he uncovers is not exactly uplifting. Let’s put it this way: you won’t want to read this
book if you cling to the belief that governments and authorities are wise and good, that institutions do not exist to cheat
everybody and that hypocrisy is not what’s behind any appearance of good intentions on the part of the powers-that-be.
There’s a lot more detail about the sex trade than some readers might want but I never found it salacious; to me, it’s
all conveyed in a spirit of bemused anthropology. And, for me, there’s no little appeal in Sonchai’s Buddhist
take on things. Although dedicated and sincere, he’s by no means a prig. He’s well aware of the compromises he
makes and he seems to have a sense of humour about it all.
With a book so good, you feel compelled to look for some flaw. In this case, one comes to light before very long. Dialogue
is not John Burdett’s strong point. It often happens, where two people are speaking, that you have trouble figuring
out who is giving a particular speech. That could be fixed by some very simple writing mechanics. A somewhat more problematic
issue is the writer’s tendency to give people very long speeches, going on for several paragraphs, when they have to
explain some background or some technical detail. God forbid that writers should not be allowed to give their characters long
speeches – going on for pages, if necessary – but I think they should sound like speech, i.e. lots of sentence
fragments, spontaneous exclamations and distractions – that sort of thing, rather than a succession of perfectly formed
and logically linked sentences such that a person in real life would never utter.
Another possible flaw could be the denouement of the book. It’s convoluted and preposterous, almost to the point
of stretching credulity. But Mr. Burdett disarms your critical apparatus by keeping an undercurrent of black comedy running
through the proceedings. You end up shaking your head more in amusement and wonderment than in disbelief.
School Days by Robert B. Parker, 2005
This was my first encounter with Robert B. Parker, author of over fifty books. On the basis of this one, it looks like
there's a feast of reading waiting for me. His "Spenser" is one of the most engaging narrator detectives I’ve
ever met. The writing is swift and economical (it took me about three hours to read the 300 pages), the plotting neat and
the dialogue witty. I particularly like Spenser’s self-deprecating humour. His droll commentary nicely side-steps
the monotonous "And-then-I-did-this-and-then-I-did-that" recital that many detective narrators fall into. Also, the insistent
but understated way he keeps asserting his sexuality. For instance, he’s watching women passing in their summer dresses
below his second-storey office window: "Summer dresses are good." Only the most militant feminist could be annoyed, I would
think. I even enjoyed the way his girlfriend’s dog helped to fill in the Watson role: i.e. the confidant to whom the
detective tells his thoughts. Spenser isn’t above dishing a bit of violence when he thinks some punk needs sorting out
but, on the other hand, he manages to score some nice points about justice and fairness.
In this outing, Spenser has been asked by a rich dowager to try to clear her grandson who is accused of a mass
killing in his high school in a small town near Boston. Given all the evidence – including a confession – it looks
like a no-brainer, but Spenser is intrigued. And so are we. The resolution is interesting and plausible without being far-fetched
and overly complicated like so many of the solutions in mysteries these days.
Thirteen Steps Down by Ruth Rendell, 2004
It surprised me to find a relatively recent Ruth Rendell on the library shelves. Usually, anything but her older books
are out on loan. The main story in this one concerns a creepy guy who has an obsession with a 1950s serial killer. Said creep
also happens to be stalking a famous London model. For a while, the book didn’t seem to be working for me. Strange to
say for a Ruth Rendell novel, there wasn’t much of a narrative hook. Also, I was finding the creep’s elderly landlady
more interesting and more credible than him. But then, around page 100, somebody got clobbered to death and the book started
to be more fun. Let me re-phrase that: the suspense element kicked in.
There’s a lot of good reading on offer. As in all of Ms. Rendell’s books, she creates a vivid world by building
up an enormous amount of detail involving several story lines. But the book doesn’t grab me the way some of her great
ones do. That may be because the central character – the creep – is so unlikeable. Maybe that’s the old
problem many British writers have: not being able to write "down" about lower class characters without making them yuckky.
And towards the end, you start noticing too many coincidences and implausibilities, something that doesn’t often happen
in a Rendell book. Which might explain why this one was waiting on the shelves?
Maigret and the Fortuneteller by Georges Simenon, 1944 (English translation by Geoffrey Sainsbury, 1989)
My recent visit to Paris put me in the mood for the ambiance of a Georges Simenon mystery – the Quai des Orfèvres, the cafés and boulevards, the brasseries and the
bistros, the glasses of cold beer. As usual, Monsieur Simenon provides a good story in a straight-forward, no-nonsense way.
Inspector Maigret is investigating the knifing murder of a middle-aged fortune teller. In a typical Simenon-twist, a bewildered
old man was found locked in the murdered woman’s kitchen. Maigret unravels it all with a great instinct for the evil
machinations that people are capable of. But I must admit that I didn’t find it easy to follow the final explanation
involving many complicated connections between dastardly characters.
It was interesting, though, to re-visit this simpler era in detective fiction when cops bossed people around more or less
with impunity and a chief inspector would take it for granted that a pretty female witness would accept his offer to lunch.
I hadn’t remembered from my previous reading of Simenon that Maigret had a somewhat disgruntled attitude to his job.
I’d remembered him more in the mold of the high-minded, prissy sleuths like Sherlock Holmes and Lord Peter Wimsey. In
this book, though, Maigret is often more concerned about his next glass of beer than about the person talking to
him. Could Maigret be the fore-runner of the jaded, boozy detective we know so well in crime fiction today?
One Step Behind by Henning Mankell, 1997
Although this Swedish writer came highly recommended, I kept wondering what was keeping me reading. The book opens strongly:
the murder of some young people frolicking in period costumes in a park. From then on, though, there’s not much action.
No humour at all, as far as I could see. Not even much character to speak of, apart from detective Kurt Wallander and the
perpetrator (when discovered). Most of the cops Wallander works with are interchangeable names. And what difficult names at
that! All impossible Swedish conglomerations of consonants. Nobody with sensible names like Smith and Jones and McGillicuddy.
What was keeping me reading, I eventually realized, was the obsessive quality of the writing as reflected in Wallander’s
personality. His somewhat morose way of mulling things over really does pull you in: could it be this? could it be that? He’s
always going back and re-tracing his steps. Each time you get just a little bit more information to carry you forward. In
this book (one of a series of nine), Wallander is also dealing with some personal health problems that add to his worries.
No extraneous details or incidents interfere with your sense of living in the skin of a very real guy.
Towards the end, though, I began to find his character wobbly. For most of the book, he seems like one of the more decent
specimens of his breed but suddenly he’ll intimidate somebody or threaten a witness with an outright lie. When the crunch
comes, he does stupid things like forgetting his cell phone and his gun. His handling of the final crisis is more boy scout
than hard-boiled detective. Maybe this is just a reflection of a European sensibility in murder mysteries rather than the
rather more brutal genre that I’m accustomed to. Or maybe it’s about Wallander being a real person rather than
a super hero? Not to say that I’m one, but I managed to guess one of the main plot elements that eluded him for a couple
of hundred pages.
When the solution finally came, I didn’t find the perpetrator’s psychological motivation entirely convincing.
The elaborate attempt by the cops to anticipate the final murder struck me as amateurish. And the writer too often resorts
to lame prose like "He thought he was on the brink of something" or "It was back to square one." All of which is to say that,
if Henning Mankell truly is a great mystery writer – and I grant that he may be – this must not be one of his
Acqua Alta by Donna Leon, 1996
A New Yorker overview of mysteries some time in the past year raved about this writer and this book in particular.
So it was at the top of my reading list for this summer. It’s been a long time since I’ve been so disappointed
in a mystery. In fact, there really isn’t much mystery to it. An American woman in Venice is beaten up and a museum
director is killed in a scheme that seems to have something to do with fake antiquities. Detective Guido Brunetti figures
everything out in a plodding way and the bad guys turn out to be who we’re expecting them to be. Although the book,
published in 1998, contains some references to computers, the casual, laid-back style of sleuthing feels out-of-date
and barely professional -- which is not an impression you get from really good mysteries that are set even further back in
history: e.g. George Simenon’s Inspector Maigret series.
So maybe this is a novel of character and atmosphere rather than mystery? Trouble is, I couldn’t see that Brunetti
or anyone else in the book has any distinguishable character. A few incidents are inserted to make Brunetti seem like a caring
family man but they are extraneous, contrived and unconvincing. Similarly, a secretary in the cop shop is meant to be interesting
by virtue of the fact that she has different bouquets of flowers on her desk every day – which didn’t do it for
me. There’s an opera singer on hand and you might think that would get my attention but she’s a pretty standard,
run-of-the-mill diva. Atmosphere? Well, there are some interesting details about the architecture and the climatology of Venice.
(The title translates as "High Water" – referring to the flooding in Venice due to winter rains and high tides.) And
some of the information about the identifying of antiquities is enlightening.
Then maybe the main point is the writing? For my money, it includes too much irrelevant filler along the lines of : "He
went and opened the window while he waited for them to arrive." As for the arrival of two young female Americans at
a bar where Brunetti is sitting, the only purpose of their presence is to give the author a chance to show how superior she
is to young American tourists. A final confrontation with the bad guys, lasting several chapters, is well staged, but then
we get a sentimental coda that the book hasn’t really earned.
The Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull, 1934
Martin Levin, the books editor of The Globe and Mail once mentioned this book in a list of all-time favourite mysteries.
I was glad to have it brought to my attention. It took a while, though, to get used to the fact that it isn’t a
mystery so much as a comedy. A young man named Edward is trying to dispatch the domineering aunt who has controlled his
life ever since his parents died. The main pleasures of the book are the guy’s outrageous attitude and his
way with the English language. He’s a combination of a P.G. Wodehouse character and one of Oscar Wilde’s. Surely
it must be a direct reference to Lady Bracknell’s interview with Jack (The Importance of Being Earnest) when
we’re told that Edward "knew absolutely nothing." He’s passionate about his clothes and loathes anything resembling
work. One of my favourite quotes from him, "I do hate being taken at my word." Not to say that his aunt Mildred is any slouch
in the character department. If ever young man had a formidable opponent as a relative, it’s Aunt Mildred.
Although mystery isn't the main point of the book, really, underneath it all, there is a kind of suspense,
because you keep wondering how the hell it’s going to end. Most of the book purports to be Edward's diary, outlining
his malign intentions towards Aunt Mildred, but a postscript shows us that what was going on was quite different from
what we thought. It comes as something of a surprise to realize that there was some fairly clever detective work going on