Though the story doesn't really get moving until page 100, I enjoyed "The Moonstone." It's a bit reminiscent of "Rashomon," Akira Kurosawa's tale of r...moreThough the story doesn't really get moving until page 100, I enjoyed "The Moonstone." It's a bit reminiscent of "Rashomon," Akira Kurosawa's tale of rape and murder told from a variety of viewpoints. Not that we see a crime committed from different views but the novel is a series of "narratives" composed by both principals and a couple of peripheral characters, all of whom interpret the crime and what follows in a variety of ways.
Like many a 19th century novel, "The Moonstone" is a bit melodramatic and the motivations of some of the characters don't quite ring true to the late-20th century/21st century mind (particularly those of Rachel Verinder) but it's well paced and it explores how people act on what they perceive and what can ensue when you act before knowing all the facts.
I particularly liked the characters of Gabriel Betteredge and Sgt. Cuff. Betteredge is the irascible old servant/major domo of the Verinder family, who, nevertheless, possesses a sharp, sympathetic mind. His "narrative" takes up the first third of the book and, to my mind, is the best written and most entertaining.
Sgt. Cuff is the prototype of that type of fictional detective brought to its fullest expression in Sherlock Holmes 30 years after the publication of this novel. Cuff arrives at the Verinder manse and proceeds to assemble the clues in a dispassionate, impartial manner, coming to conclusion that no one is willing to accept. His conclusion is in error but that's only because he's denied knowledge of a crucial clue due to the untimely illness of a dinner guest. He's also much more likable and "human" than Holmes, who can, often, come off as entirely inhuman in his dispassion and impartiality. Cuff also reminds me of another English detective -- Christopher Foyle (as played by Michael Kitchen) from the PBS Mystery series, "Foyle's War." Both characters are passionately committed to solving crimes, regardless of where the evidence leads.
If you're interested, Kate Summerscale's "The Suspicions of Mister Whicher" retails the actual crime and detective that inspired Collins, and is also worth reading.(less)
The setting is Laos just after the Pathet Lao seized power (c. 1975). Dr. Siri Paiboun is an old member of the Party d...moreI thoroughly enjoyed this novel.
The setting is Laos just after the Pathet Lao seized power (c. 1975). Dr. Siri Paiboun is an old member of the Party dragooned into being the country's chief coronor because all the qualified candidates have fled. Untrained, nevertheless Siri sets out to learn the job and do the best job he can.
Cotterill writes with ease and engagingly and Siri is a very likable character (I can empathize with his phone phobia). I hope the author develops this into a continuing series.(less)
**spoiler alert** In the same vein of decent cops working for dictatorial regimes like my recently read Thirty-Three Teeth is James Church's A Corpse...more**spoiler alert** In the same vein of decent cops working for dictatorial regimes like my recently read Thirty-Three Teeth is James Church's A Corpse in the Koryo. Here, however, the atmosphere is far darker. Where Cotterill plays up the absurdities of the Pathet Lao's regime, Church's North Korean bureaucrats are vicious thugs and the slightest mistake could (and does) cost lives.
Inspector O is the grandson of a respected general and war hero, which gives him a certain amount of freedom denied his peers but it's a freedom that gives him the "right" to forget to wear his lapel-pin photo of the Great Leader, and it's a connection that lets him exploit his grandfather's only in an unofficial capacity.
"Church" is a pseudonym for a former intelligence agent, and his background gives a certain verisimilitude to the insane machinations the native police agencies and foreign governments engage in (ostensibly in service to the country or ideology but in reality to feather someone's nest or accumulate power against one's rivals).
As usual with the better mystery novels, it's not so much the crime as the investigator who makes or breaks the story. In fact, it's hard to see what "crime" O is investigating. Sure, there's a "corpse in the Koryo" eventually but it doesn't signify in the end, where it's revealed that O and his department have been used as bait in a vicious power struggle between Deputy Director Kang of the Investigations Division and Captain Kim of Military Security.
I like Inspector O. He's a fairly decent man, though sorely battered and cynically twisted by the horribly paranoid society he lives in. Which is the other strength of the novel: The depiction of North Korean society and how people learn to live within it.
For anyone who liked Fatherland or Martin Cruz Smith's Arkady Renko, I'd strongly recommend this author; and I'd encourage any mystery/spy-genre fan to check Church out.(less)
**spoiler alert** Thirty-Three Teeth is the second installment in the Siri Paiboun series. Dr. Paiboun and his coterie remain as engaging as ever, and...more**spoiler alert** Thirty-Three Teeth is the second installment in the Siri Paiboun series. Dr. Paiboun and his coterie remain as engaging as ever, and while there's a savage, serial murderer loose in Vientiane, the bulk of the novel is more concerned with Siri's efforts to cope with the fact that he's the reincarnated soul of a thousand-year-old shaman, Yeh Ming.
Even though the spirits of the dead continue to help Dr. Paiboun solve his cases, those who wish can still rationalize it away as Siri's subconscious working below the surface (God knows, Siri does it half the time). Even so, they are not a gimmick that allows the author to wrap up the mystery. They're obscure and not talkative and Paiboun has to gather the physical evidence to track down his criminals.
The only thing I wasn't happy with was the murder of Siri's dog Saloop in a (to me) gratuitous subplot about a thuggish neighbor. I hope Cotterill incorporates it in a later novel so that it takes on a bit more meaning -- we'll see.
Think "CSI: London (c. 1900)" or an episode of "Columbo" or "Quincy" and you'll have an idea of the flavor of this collection of mysteries written by...moreThink "CSI: London (c. 1900)" or an episode of "Columbo" or "Quincy" and you'll have an idea of the flavor of this collection of mysteries written by R. Austin Freeman in the first decades of the 20th century.
Freeman was one of the pioneers of the "scientific detective story" and is a competent writer. The chief actors in the series are the eponymous Dr. John Thorndyke and his friend/junior partner Dr. Christopher Jervis - the comparison with Holmes and Watson is inevitable and obvious. Unfortunately for Freeman, Thorndyke and Jervis are just not as interesting or dynamic a pair as Holmes and Watson (a modern comparison is the electricity between Kirk and Spock vs. the power failure between Picard and Riker in the Star Trek genre).
The chief reason I like Conan Doyle or the other (rather limited) group of mystery authors I read are the characters who inhabit the authors' universes rather than the mysteries themselves. Thorndyke is just too colorless to draw me very deeply into caring about the story.
Nevertheless, the stories are enjoyable and entertaining enough and helped fill in the time between climbing into bed and falling asleep. Yet faced with volumes of Conan Doyle or Freeman, my hand would stray to the former. I'd only recommend these tales to aficionados of Victorian detective fiction.(less)
A friend of mine introduced me to Raffles during my graduate-school days (daze?) at UCLA. EW Hornung was the brother-in-law of Conan Doyle; and Raffle...moreA friend of mine introduced me to Raffles during my graduate-school days (daze?) at UCLA. EW Hornung was the brother-in-law of Conan Doyle; and Raffles, the criminal counterpart to Holmes (though Hornung "redeemed" him in his final adventure, gallantly defending the Empire).
Raffles is not as striking a character as Holmes and his companion (Bunny) is not Dr. Watson but the stories are entertaining.(less)
While browsing among the discarded-book shelves at one of my libraries, I came across an omnibus volume of mysteries, one of which was this one (the o...moreWhile browsing among the discarded-book shelves at one of my libraries, I came across an omnibus volume of mysteries, one of which was this one (the other two are The Baby Merchants by Lillian O'Donnell and High Stakes by Dick Francis; I plan on reading the O'Donnell tome because I can't resist the title but I'll probably skip the Francis book - I've got a lot of other, more interesting sounding material to read).
But back to Maigret: I first became aware of the existence of Inspector Maigret through the good offices of the BBC and PBS's Mystery, where Michael Chabon (the 2nd Prof. Dumbledore) plays the Parisian detective in post-WW2 France. The television series is pretty good; I've found that Mystery does a decent job of translating police procedurals onto the screen -- Jane Tennyson, Inspector Linley, Morse, Poirot, Miss Marple, Chris Foyle, etc. -- and in Maigret's case, it's fun watching British-accented actors playing ostensibly Francophone gendarmes.
Unfortunately, I find that they often don't translate well into prose for me. It's a rare occasion to admit that I like a film over a book, but I prefer to watch a mystery rather than read it in many cases. (This is also true of Ellis Peters' Cadfael series.)
The story in Black Sheep is that a man who is well liked and apparently without enemies is found shot dead in his apartment, and all the clues indicate that someone familiar with the family and the apartment did it. The remainder of the short novel (only 132 pages in this edition) follows Maigret and some of his underlings as they question everyone they can until they finally track down the murderer. On screen, a good writer, director and/or actors can bring this to life but as presented in this novel, Simenon fails to make it all that compelling or interesting.(less)
Joe Capretto and his wife, Norah Mulcahaney, police detectives in New York, want to adopt a child. At the same time Joe is working on the investigation of a big drug smuggling ring. Though they find out adoption is difficult enough these days, they are startled and frightened by the connection they uncover between the two projects in this very credible and gripping thriller.
Alas, it turns out the blurb is the best part of this novel. I wasn't even able to finish it, it's just so dully and amateurishly written.(less)
You would think with my background -- a bachelor's and a master's in History with a concentration on Medieval Europe -- that Brother Cadfael would be...moreYou would think with my background -- a bachelor's and a master's in History with a concentration on Medieval Europe -- that Brother Cadfael would be a natural fit. Unfortunately, Ellis Peters was not the author to bring that era alive for me.
I far prefer Derek Jacobi's portrayal of the erstwhile crusader and monk on PBS's Mystery.(less)
I find myself with a case of writer’s block regarding the writing of this review. I’m not sure what I want to say about The City & The City.
I supp...moreI find myself with a case of writer’s block regarding the writing of this review. I’m not sure what I want to say about The City & The City.
I suppose my blockage results from a feeling of anticlimax more than anything else – I was expecting more based on the hype and rave reviews surrounding the book. But I’ve seen the theme before – we’re seeing and unseeing, sensing and unsensing things all the time. For example, consider this article at TomDispatch.com about U.S. prisons. Or consider that I live in Los Angeles and I know that the city I live in is not the same one that my erstwhile students from South Central live in nor is it where the wealthier denizens of my office’s neighborhood (Brentwood & Bel Air) live. And denizens of other cities could say the same thing. Besźel and Ul Qoma are the neurotic extremes of human perception.
This is not to say that I didn’t like the book. I did. I very much enjoyed reading it. The character of Tyador Borlú, the Besźel detective who gets caught up in a murder and conspiracy that involves both cities, is interesting, as was the mystery, which was sufficiently convoluted and not immediately obvious (to me, at any rate). And I was again pleased by the way Miéville trumps expectations – there is no supernatural agency at work or even a super technology – just the normal, if quixotic, self-delusions of the human brain. (He manages a similar upending of expectations in Un Lun Dun.)
And it’s Miéville so the writing can be extraordinary and is always good. Besźel and Ul Qoma may not quite reach the baroque splendor of New Crobuzon but Miéville is an interesting writer and well worth your time.(less)
Back in the day, before the infomercial conquered late night TV, independent stations (yes, such creatures existed before the 1996 Telecom Act) aired...moreBack in the day, before the infomercial conquered late night TV, independent stations (yes, such creatures existed before the 1996 Telecom Act) aired movies, some good, most bad, and sometimes I would stay up all night watching them. It was on one of these marathons that I first saw Judge Dee and the Monastery Murders (based on van Gulik's The Haunted Monastery) with Khigh Dhiegh (Wo Fat, the crimelord from "Hawaii 5-O", and the diabolical psychiatrist who hypnotizes Laurence Harvey and Frank Sinatra in The Manchurian Candidate, among other roles) as the eponymous character. I was already something of a sinophile, and so enjoyed the story of a Tang-era judge who solved mysteries (for a made-for-TV movie, it was fairly well done).
Imagine my joy when I learned 20 years later that that sole movie was based on a series of short stories and novels by a Dutch diplomat named Robert van Gulik, who left this world the very year I entered it. I know I've read some of the stories but it's been 15+ years since and I can't remember exactly which ones and am rereading the series as opportunity permits.
Judge Dee is based on the real Tang magistrate Dee Jen-djieh, who lived from AD 630-700, and really is remembered as a model Confucian minister and paragon of justice. Though the crimes Judge Dee solves under Gulik's hand are fictional, he bases many of them on actual criminal cases from the period.
Van Gulik is not a great writer but he is good enough to write entertaining yarns with interesting characters and intriguing mysteries. (Though, frustratingly, readers must often wait till Judge Dee explains things to figure out the crime; there are not enough clues for them to more than guess at who may have transgressed the law.)
In this particular collection, the two best stories IMO are "The Wrong Sword" and "Murder on New Year's Eve." Both involve what are, on the surface, cut-and-dried cases of murder that take some devious twists before Dee manages to smoke out the real culprits.(less)
"The Morning of the Monkey" finds Dee struggling to find out who murdered and mutilated an old vagabo...moreTwo more solid whodunits from Judge Dee's career.
"The Morning of the Monkey" finds Dee struggling to find out who murdered and mutilated an old vagabond and left his body in an abandoned mountain hut while also trying to break up a smuggling ring. Needless to say, both cases wind up being connected and the obvious suspects are not the real culprits.
"The Night of the Tiger" takes place late in Dee's career. He's on his way back to the capital to take up his post as Chief Justice and finds himself stranded by flooding in a fort besieged by bandits and neck deep in a sordid tale of murder and greed. In this particular tale, Gulik is able to indulge in revealing a bit of Chinese culture when Dee spends some time playing the lute (Gulik had written an entire book on the subject: The Lore of the Chinese Lute).(less)
This is the third book in the series about Siri Paiboun, "the feisty 73-year-old national coroner of Laos" (as the backcover blurb says). This time he...moreThis is the third book in the series about Siri Paiboun, "the feisty 73-year-old national coroner of Laos" (as the backcover blurb says). This time he has to use his deductive powers and access to the spirit world to solve the deaths of three people before the Laotian and Vietnamese politburos show up at the old rebel capital for a national celebration.
Cotterill lets the less-than-benevolent side of the Pathet Lao show through a bit more here than in the previous two entries but the emphasis is still on the inefficiency and bureaucratic inanity of the government (Nurse Dtui is "courted" by the local security commander, who clears his marriage proposal with the Social Relations Council before asking her), and the focus is on the three main characters of the series: Dr. Siri, Nurse Dtui and Mr. Geung.
Dr. Siri was a doctor and soldier with the Pathet Lao, and hoped to enjoy a well-earned retirement after they defeated the Royalists but finds himself press ganged into being the national coroner when most other doctors in the country flee to Thailand or otherwise abroad. Though he believes in the ideals of the party, he joined the Communists largely because his beloved wife Boua had. Over the years, particularly after his wife dies, Siri has become disillusioned with the Party's methods and effectiveness but does his best to ensure that the unfortunates who come to his table receive some sort of justice. Nurse Dtui is his young female protege; the equal (potentially) of Siri at the operating table, she's just as good a detective as the good doctor outside the morgue. Mr. Geung is a young man with Down syndrome who works as Siri's lab assistant. Taken in by the previous coroner, Geung, ironically, knows more about autopsies and morgue procedures than either Siri or Dtui did when they first arrived.
Cotterill is good at invoking both the brutal realities of life for Laotians and the compassion that it can induce.
While the mystery is definitely secondary to the narrative, it is satisfactorily convoluted enough so that the reader doesn't immediately figure out what's going on. The only potential problem I foresee is that Cotterill may come to rely on Siri's access to the spirit world as a deus ex machina - if he can't figure things out deductively, Siri will just ask his spirit friends.(less)
In 1975, the communist/nationalist Pathet Lao seized power in Laos. Dr. Siri Paiboun was one of the young, idealistic partisans who spent 30+ years of...moreIn 1975, the communist/nationalist Pathet Lao seized power in Laos. Dr. Siri Paiboun was one of the young, idealistic partisans who spent 30+ years of their lives helping to bring that about. Now in his 70s, he's tired and disillusioned with the inadequacies and incompetence of the regime but he's also the only candidate with the correct politics and the skills to be the country's chief coroner (pretty much the only coroner). He's also the reincarnation of a powerful Hmong shaman and can talk to dead people.
The supernatural element is almost wholly absent from this entry in the series, which focuses on Siri's attempt to foil a Royalist-Thai plot to overthrow the government and discover how a 10-year-old boy wound up drowned in the river. As ever, he's aided in his endeavors by his nurse, Dtui, and Colonel Phosy, a member of the national police.
This is another solid entry in the series, and I would recommend it.(less)
Three Bags Full is, without a doubt, the best sheep detective novel ever written. It’s a very fun read that can be e...moreRating: 3.8 stars, I’m rounding up
Three Bags Full is, without a doubt, the best sheep detective novel ever written. It’s a very fun read that can be enjoyed as a simple diversion from life’s cares or as a serious, if humorous, look at dealing with “guilt, misdeeds, and unrequited love” (back cover).
The story begins when George Glenn’s flock discovers his dead body in their meadow one morning. An uncommon shepherd, George had been in the habit of reading to his sheep – primarily trashy romances (“Pamela stories”), a detective novel, and, once, a book of sheep diseases – so they were very familiar with humans and their habits. That familiarity leads the flock to want to find George’s murderer.
There’s a large cast of idiosyncratic characters but the chief ones are Miss Maple (the smartest sheep in Glennkill and probably the world), Othello (the literal “black” sheep of the flock), Mopple the Whale (who can remember everything), Zora (a mystical sheep who’s always looking into the abyss), and Sir Ritchfield (the lead ram) and his twin Melmoth (who left the flock but came back). One of this book’s greatest strengths is how successful Swann is in keeping to the ovine point of view and logic. Assuming that you’re willing to believe that sheep can think on a conscious level, at no point do you not believe in the plausibility of the sheep’s investigation. She also sets up some hilarious scenes of human-sheep interaction and examples of sheepish logic. For example, at one point Miss Maple, Othello and Mopple sneak into the village to spy on a conversation between two of the prime suspects. They’re lurking outside one of the women’s house but can’t see inside because of a geranium bush. Mopple devours the foliage and then Swann describes one of the funnier images in the book: “A short time later there was devastation where the geraniums had recently been growing and thriving. Beyond the devastation the sheep could see Beth and Rebecca sitting at the table. From inside the room, it looked as if Beth had planted three sheep’s heads in her window box….” (p. 133)
In another example, Sir Ritchfield’s twin Melmoth returns but the sheep don’t realize who he is. Believing him to be Sir Ritchfield, his odd behavior and words make the flock afraid that a hole has opened up in Sir Ritchfield’s memory and it’s all leaking out so they determine to create a memory so big that the hole will be stuffed: “Soon afterward all the sheep in the flock were lying on their backs in front of George’s Place with their legs in the air, bleating for all they were worth.”
It’s also funny to watch how the guilty consciences of the village butcher, Ham, and parish pries, Father William, turn Mopple and Othello into demon sheep sent to torment them; or the climactic final scene where Miss Maple, Othello, Mopple and Zora invade the “Smartest Sheep in Glennkill” contest to reveal the murderer in a pantomime the flock cooked up.
Definitely recommended to the mystery fan looking for something a bit less grim than Grisham or for those aficionados of sheep novels. (less)
It is unfair to any author to wander into a book expecting something and then being disappointed when it's not delivered but I'm human and I can't hel...moreIt is unfair to any author to wander into a book expecting something and then being disappointed when it's not delivered but I'm human and I can't help it. Reading this book, I had hoped to read something like Barry Hughart's adventures with Master Li and Number Ten Ox (Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was et al.) or Robert van Gulik's Judge Dee stories (Judge Dee at Work: Eight Chinese Detective Stories et al.), except in this case the celestial and infernal bureaucracies are real. Or a mystery along the lines of Colin Cotterill's Sari Paiboun novels, where a Laotian coroner is the reincarnated soul of a Hmong shaman. With Hughart and Cotterill there's a spritely, lyrical quality to their writing that makes you believe (or want to believe) that what you're reading could really happen; van Gulik delivers interesting, Holmesian whodunits solved by a character I find delightfully fascinating.
Liz Williams manages to create moderately interesting characters but I didn't find the story terribly interesting or the execution distinctive enough to make the work stand out. The two chief characters are Chen Wei and Zhu Irzh. Chen's the human, and his dearest wish is to be just an average cop allowed to do his job with a minimum of interference from mundane or spiritual powers. Unfortunately, little in his life conduces to this aim: He has a near unique access a rapport with Heaven and Hell and he's married a fugitive demon (Inari) who hides out on his houseboat with her family's familiar - a spirit that alternates between posing as a tea kettle and ambling about as a badger). There's little explanation for Chen's uniqueness but I can put up with ignorance so long as it doesn't interfere with understanding the storyline. Besides, it's a series and presumably readers who continue to follow Chen and Zhu will have more revealed to them.
Zhu Irzh holds a similar position as Chen in the hierarchy of Hell - a middle-level functionary who'd like to get his job done without crossing the paths of his superiors too often. In many ways, Zhu was a disappointment. As Williams portrays him, he's a typical, swashbuckling rogue in the tradition of D'Artagnan and Han Solo. Essentially a human with strange eyes and a pointed tail. It would have been more interesting and challenging if his character really had been demonic and he became Chen's "friend" (or at least "ally") because of the logic of that nature. Not because he's been "infected" with a conscience as is intimated at one point in the book. This is one of the strengths in C.J. Cherryh's Pride of Chanur series: Pyanfar manipulates the unique psychology of the kif to get them into the Compact and obeying its rules; they're not just humans with prosthetic foreheads a la "Star Trek."
I could raise a similar objection to Inari, Chen's demonic wife. She's basically a human woman escaping an arranged marriage.
Without giving away too much, the story revolves around Chen and Zhu uncovering an unsanctioned plot by the Ministry of Epidemics to unleash a plague against humanity using stolen human souls (many intended for Heaven). It's not a bad plot but not especially remarkable, and Williams invokes a couple of deae ex machina (Kuan Yin and the Goddess of Plagues) to bring everything to a happy conclusion, which I found unsatisfactory.
I like Williams. It's been years since I read it, but I remember really enjoying Empire of Bones and saying to myself, "I'd like to see more of her stuff" but I don't think she's at her best in this book. I may pick up the further adventures of Inspector Chen if there's opportunity but they're "brain candy" - something to read when I need a break from "serious" novels or nonfiction.(less)