London Road Police Station was down the road from Bridgeton Cross... The door was always open to the public, welcoming them into an empty lobby with f...moreLondon Road Police Station was down the road from Bridgeton Cross... The door was always open to the public, welcoming them into an empty lobby with freestanding poster displays of friendly policemen and women chortling happily. For safety reasons the front bar wasn't manned. The duty sergeant could see the lobby through a one-way mirror and CCTV. He came out in his shirtsleeves if the member of the public didn't look tooled up or mad with the drink, but if they had as much as an air of melancholy about them he brought his deputy and a nightstick ...
Claustrophobic, enfolded in workplace discontent, a study in competitive, backstabbing incompatibility. And that's the good guys. Denise Mina's Still Midnight is an impressive read, and a different sort of police-procedural mystery. The story itself is fairly minimal, just enough to keep the meter ticking; the investigation is standard fare, banal even. The villains are mostly from the fookin'-eedjut school, even including the one that goes kind of sideways over the course of the story.
The program here seems to be that establishing the routine will include not only the regular functions of the detectives, but the writhing dysfunction under the surface. Having set the ground rules, there is no other choice than to take the form itself, the procedural, toward ballistic, postal, white-out. If this is an introduction to a series detective, it is unusual and fairly nervy.
Somehow, we end up getting the most bravura of procedurals, every turn in the proceedings moving from moments of sullen inertia toward vitriol and harbored resentment. Not hard to predict that it's going to be difficult for the all-too-human investigators to process clues and case details in this atmosphere of uncertainty. And subliminally, the criminal underworld itself is matched, reflected in a kind of wavy mirror in the telling of both worlds.
Still Midnight is vaguely reminiscent of the great book & film "The Onion Field", with allegiances betrayed, and grim motives covering even worse ones. Well plotted and neatly constructed. Mina is easily as good as anyone writing mysteries, and better than most. (less)
Spoilers Ahead. Way down amongst the nondescript weeds of modern murder mysteries, there is a distinction that has evolved into a frontier, a line of d...moreSpoilers Ahead. Way down amongst the nondescript weeds of modern murder mysteries, there is a distinction that has evolved into a frontier, a line of demarcation. The easiest way to put it is that the Who-Dunit of Sherlockian or Poirovian classicism has parted ways, some would even say moved on, to the trickier and weirder realms of the Why-Dunit.
Implicit here is that the whodunit, a jigsaw puzzle with contradictory clue pathways and intricate plots, is after all only a jigsaw puzzle; the whodunit clicks along like a metronome spreading a trail of butler-yes versus butler-no indicators in its wake. The reader must sift the data and crack the case.
The Why-Dunit, on the opposite hand, cares little for the identity of the killer, which may be known at the beginning anyway-- and goes on an interior kind of search, for the psychology that could lead someone to the point of murdering another human. Think The Cask Of Amontillado. There is no real cracking of the case to be had, there is at most only the sad revelation, in the end, of the pathology at hand, how it grew and flourished in the darkness of the mind.
With Morag Joss' The Night Following, we have a variation on this second kind of mystery, the whydunit, but with a difference. Here there is nothing but missed opportunity and thoughtless cruelty. There is never an actual murder, though there are a couple of deaths. The protagonist in her story is the killer, but-- she is not the murderer. This may seem too fine a distinction, but not for the hardcore, the initiated, the epicures... who will agree with me.
Make no mistake; to have a murder mystery, you must first have, in one form or another, a Murder. A killing is not the same, a manslaughter is not the same; the depth and total divide between humanity, and a murderer, is fundamental-- complete and unconscionably horrific.
But to have a Murder Mystery, the murder you have must have something specific ahead of it, something within it, something devious called malice aforethought, and can never be mistaken for a simple wrongful death, tragic as that may be on its own merits.
Morag Joss' beautifully written "The Night Following" has many elements of mystery narrative plot and style, many of the same kinds of pathways and patterns. But it is something else entirely, something along the lines of what Barbara Vine is to Ruth Rendell, an exploration of empathy and identity, a mystery of the faith, in a near-religious sense; but not a Murder Mystery. (less)
Questions, questions, and more questions. A never-ending procession of conversations and interviews and interrogations, every one of them at first glance just as pointless and unproductive as the last, auntil that important detail emerged. Most often when one least expected it. That link, that little unexpected reply . . .That sudden but faintly glowing sign in the darkenss that one couldn't afford to overlook. It was important not to rush past it in this overgrown thicket of irrelevant and tiresome details...
This is a first look, for me, into the police detective novels of Håkan Nesser, a Swedish mystery author whose books have been increasingly more available in english translation for some years now.
Although pretty basic, we have the pleasure of seeing the Police Procedural done without all the annoying extras: chases, shoot-outs, too little realism, too much episodic-tv chit-chat, too little plausibility, cast to the side in order to sell the heroics involved... etc.
Where this book (and presumably series) excels is in the accumulation of telling detail, often psychologically and emotionally-laden detail that allows the reader to sift the ingredients for himself, alongside the detectives. (Where it scores no points is in the thankfully very-occasional philosophical wanderings, an occasion for some truly mind-numbingly undergrad moments, in what might be called raison-debt management. I'm tempted to put this off to the translation, as the rest of the material here is really well constructed.)
But best and most central is the main detective here, called Chief Inspector Van Veeteren. It is nice to see a full, egotistical-yet-reasonably-doubtful character in the grand tradition of the Detective profession. One who takes up the helm and stands tall in the job-- but certainly not with posturing or heroics. More like with intuition. Van Veeteren is a bit cranky, doesn't suffer fools or foolishness lightly, and is even still pretty good-humored. Nesser's protagonist is in the Holmes, Poirot, Morse mold-- well ahead of the learning curve as the proceedings move along, but smart enough to know what he doesn't know yet.
Can a good central character drive a series ? When the rest of the narrative is engagingly constructed and avoids the familiar pitfalls, yes. (less)
Procedural featuring DI Alex Morrow, notching in at either three or four in the series, not quite sure. Regardless, a well-paced outing that wastes li...moreProcedural featuring DI Alex Morrow, notching in at either three or four in the series, not quite sure. Regardless, a well-paced outing that wastes little time getting the ducks in a row, and relentlessly knocking them right down again.
Author Denise Mina's strengths are her spare prose that can be thoughtful, reflective or alternately quick and precise without getting off the rails. Difficult to notice, but what she gets away with not saying quite often keeps the larger picture much less crowded and conflicted; seems that she works on tucking context and repetitive data into the cracks and folds of the narrative, rather than expanding them elaborately.
If there's any drawback I'd point to maybe a too-large ensemble of characters; every extra character always equates to more buildup/ payoff time, and there's enough central drama without some of the peripherals. (Full disclosure, though, I've jumped the line and picked up this mid-series episode without having read the first two or three. So maybe some of those peripheral character types are already part of the standing cast. I'll have to go back to the first one and go forward.)
This stands by itself in all ways, though, and is a clever, driving, concise story that offers the raw Glasgow atmosphere as a backdrop to the mystery, and no fiddly impressionist interludes. Just the facts, Ma'am. (less)
Spoilers. Flawed, intriguing Golden-Era style mystery, written in 1945, which is a lot late for that Era. Author Mitchell has a mashup going here, with...more Spoilers. Flawed, intriguing Golden-Era style mystery, written in 1945, which is a lot late for that Era. Author Mitchell has a mashup going here, with a boys-own adventure vying for the edge against a village-cozy mystery, occasionally veering into other territory. (Also a cracked-jewelbox Edmund Crispin style mystery, it should be said).
A lot of stage direction, basically a continuing dolly-shot, follows a pair of adolescent boys and takes us in; the location is a Thameside village sometime before the era of publication, far enough from London to be its own island of drama, near enough to be vulnerable to big city evil. Within the town, there is no end to the connections and pathways: “ ... I did not dream of crossing the lock-gates and the footbridge on my return, but hurried up the slope of the road bridge and came out where the old chapel used to be, and so to the bustle of the high street, glad (for the first time, I think) to see street lamps as well as the moon, and to hear the noisy buses and grating trams instead of the little sounds of the flowing water...”
For some reason, and without aid of a map, the reader is guided, maneuvered, reversed and re-routed throughout the entire length of the book. The pace of the story is tight and driven enough to keep us on the trail, but really: “... This time the bridge was that which carried the alternative path—for the path I had selected branched off from another at about a hundred yards from the village of boats--over the canal to a path which was not part of the towing path but had been made for the convenience, I suppose, of the men who used the small dock at the mouth of our river. The bridge was narrow and high. A stone ramp led steeply up to it, and on the other side of this ramp there was a handrail which was continued up to and over the bridge...”
Luchino Visconti directed a film called 'Le Notti Bianche' that visually presented this kind of milieu, and benefitted from the sleepwalking 'maze' quality in alleys, mews, canals, bridges, lock-gates, etc-- almost entirely by moonlight. But the bookish version of same doesn't really pull it off. Any dedicated mystery reader, myself included, would probably have been game to give this a chance with amap on the flyleaf, but as it is ...
Mitchell is good at the scene change, hastening the next act and deftly placing the hinges where the reader doesn't notice. She's not so good at Orientation, and substitutes a game of Chutes & Ladders where she might have been better off with a simpler locale. (Or a map. Did I say map?)
Alongside the merry chase up and down the bridges, we have something here in the best tradition of the 'Cozy' -- where eccentricity, and the harmlessness of Quirk -- turn sharply to terror, on the turn of a page. As we get to the end of the convoluted wandering of the boys and the climax draws close, there is a kind of sickly-sweet quality of Ruin and Rot, just below the placid surface of things. The scene where a man's head is found under the cover of a kettle boiling on a deserted hearth-- and is identified by the one, black tooth .. takes us right into a Grimm's tale in an enchanted wood.
As much of the story also takes place in an Antique Shop, we also get the ephemera and flotsam washed onto the shore of the Edwardian-era empire, although not developed into an active element. (For us, damascened sabers and Indian Goddesses, Japanese lacquers and daggers in velvet scabbards are the indicators of distant misadventures; not so in the author's day.) It's been sketched in conscientiously, though.
In the end, it's a worthwhile if confounding ride, for a short mystery. The author's idea to stack and cascade her scenery as she does her clues looks less like the Escher graphic it might have seemed in the original conception. But there are moments enough of original English Mystery strangeness-- to make it a rewarding read. Take a compass.