Let's get at this obliquely. There is no courtroom scene in this book, but there is something about courtroom scenes. The first something is that I haLet's get at this obliquely. There is no courtroom scene in this book, but there is something about courtroom scenes. The first something is that I hate them, more in novels than in movies, because they are a flat tire for any pacing or drive that the narrative may have developed. A courtroom scene --by nature the very definition of a place where nothing new or original will happen, slows things to a crawl. It will always be a recap, a methodical rehash. Exceptions exist, but not in the generic run of the mill.
The author of In A Dark Dark Wood--the redundancy in the title is a guarantee of what awaits within--gives us not a courtroom scene but worse, an Extended First Person Hospital Stay. In the middle of what could have been exhibiting some nice dramatic buildup, we go with a no-atmosphere, nothing-new rehash sequence, right in the center of the story, and it is deadly to the pacing. The first-person hospital bed always brings hand wringing and remorse, and no surprise, introducing slow-moving anxiety totally dissipates the energy of the book. Pages of monologue-- "what if it's true?" ... "why can't I remember?" ... are no help.
Ruth Ware's novel elsewhere has (just) enough mystery and plot development to have comprised something that would have met the bottom-line requirements of the contemporary 3oo page hardback release. On the positive side of the ledger, the sheer mechanics of the overall plot are fairly good. There was a solid master plan for this, at some point.
Another positive is the well-drawn Nina character, who comes thru the fluff as somewhat real and three dimensional. The trick of introducing all characters at a cocktail party, though, is that it's actually harder to differentiate and develop them. Yes a tour de force when done brilliantly, but a high bar to meet when attempting a debut novel. Most of the characters in the Wood emerge as sketchy, untried shapes and placeholders.
There are surface problems, first that her snarky cast of sophisticates-- she wants to have a 'Blithe Spirit' or 'Rope' sort of affair, cocktails and dangerous banter-- really don't come off as very sophisticated. A slick, fizzy Noël Coward outing-- this is not. A lesser problem is that she wants to have aspirational, attractive characters who are smooth but human, trendy but interesting, too. Fail. Mentioning the status of both of the main characters' bustlines, in the early exposition, doesn't quite suggest depth or interest. (She peered down her top. "No, we're all good. Double D's all present and correct.") Is it there for the eventual casting director in the movie version?
Giving this two stars rather than one because it seems a wholehearted attempt, and there is always that debut novel thing to get past. Well okay, then, this is past. Next?
Have to search out a copy of this novel, haven't read this since sometime in the mid-8os. Think my hardback may have gone missing in a house of worshiHave to search out a copy of this novel, haven't read this since sometime in the mid-8os. Think my hardback may have gone missing in a house of worship in Harlem, or a gumbo hut in Louisiana. Maybe I can make a deal to get it back. Hm, where to look ..?...more
In Hollywood, anything can happen, anything at all.
One of the core Chandler books, and one that holds up just perfectly. A variation of the heiress-inIn Hollywood, anything can happen, anything at all.
One of the core Chandler books, and one that holds up just perfectly. A variation of the heiress-in-trouble mode, this one features the guy-who-married-the-heiress just to reverse a few of the standard options.
Noir works best when the investigator operates in the middle ground in society, not aligned or attached to anyone in particular; the haves and the have-nots are no particular home team for him. Chandler's Marlowe is the ambassador who visits the foreign countries that live together in Los Angeles, interwoven, interactive, but never happily so. The Long Goodbye actually manages to look at the social justice aspects pretty closely, and in doing so arrives at the beginning of the vexing problem: it doesn't add up.
We'll leave the specifics of the case to the reader, but it's worth admiring the scenery as we get to that final brick wall at the end, the brick wall that is a mirror. As long as he stays neutral, Mr Marlowe is the perfect observer of the location and its contours, on both sides of the divide. Hell is Los Angeles, of course, but it is also the postwar banality of Anycity USA, the shadows and vague opacities expertly painted by Edward Hopper:
I paid my check, left my car where it was, and walked the north side of the street to the Stockwell Building. It was an antique with a cigar counter in the entrance and a manually operated elevator that lurched and hated to level off. The corridor of the sixth floor was narrow and the doors had frosted glass panels. It was older and much dirtier than my own building. It was loaded with doctors, dentists, Christian Science practitioners not doing too good, the kind of lawyers you hope the other fellow has, the kind of doctors and dentists who just scrape along. In a building like that there will always be a few guys making real money, but they don't look it. They fit into the shabby background, which is protective coloring for them...
Stepping into the blinding glare of the midday sun will always locate the reader, and also happens to obscure the shadowy regions of the hell that we're exploring, just to keep things interesting. Since we're investigating both sides of the divide, though, there is relief in sight, when the long shadows of the palms turn bluish purple and the neon begins to glow:
I like bars just after they open for the evening. When the air inside is still cool and clean and everything is shiny and the barkeep is giving himself that last look in the mirror to see if his tie is straight and his hair is smooth. I like the neat bottles on the bar back and the lovely shining glasses and the anticipation. I like to watch the man mix the first one of the evening and put it down on a crisp mat and put the little folded napkin beside it. I like to taste it slowly. The first quiet drink of the evening in a quiet bar--that's wonderful...
We don't even need to ask if there will be A Dame. That would be like asking will there be a smoggy dust blowing through town, or if there will be palm trees, or a corpse. Yes, the Dame will appear, Blonde Ex Machina and with violet eyes. You get the impression that it hurts Marlowe worse than any precinct-room beating he's gotten, and he gets those regularly. There are blondes, and there are blondes, he notes.
What you may not notice at first are the period niceties, the fact that a manual elevator must be levelled by the rider, or that bartenders generally wear ties. No matter. This is beautiful, effortless, high-baroque noir. And the reader simply doesn't care, by midway or so, where the macguffin may be, or who is guilty. We're all guilty, all of us in our way, and this is Hell. Did you forget that part, pal..? ...more
Fred Vargas is a woman, and a mystery writer who sets her oblique, enchanted murder stories in the familiar frame of the policier format.
Which is a hFred Vargas is a woman, and a mystery writer who sets her oblique, enchanted murder stories in the familiar frame of the policier format.
Which is a help, because what she's really after is more of an Alice In Wonderland trajectory. Tracking a generally plausible crime holds the story on the tracks. The standard elements of the policier-- the rustling sounds and stifled scream at midnight in the hedgerows, the discovery of the body, the notification of the detectives, the "police-line-do-not-cross" tape fluttering in the breeze, the arrival of the medical examiner. We know it all by heart.
Ms Vargas will allow no easy ride to the finish, however, and by this outing in the series, it is as much the chaotic group of investigators that complicates the route as it is the mystery itself. First among equals, though, is her central Chief Inspector-- Commissaire in the French context-- a quirky man named Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, who runs the department and works the investigation in a roundabout fashion. Call it non-linear.
The indications and clues appear to the reader as incomprehensible, which is fine, because generally the whole of the department finds it that way too, with the exception of the Commissaire. Who wanders and gropes intuitively in the baffling forest the author has prepared. Like the famous Mr. Holmes, the hunt conducted by Adamsberg appears to be pretty unhinged to any onlooker, but persistence and letting the imagination take over begins to find a path; there is method, seemingly, to the madness.
And here the author unfailingly throws another bewildering curve into the mix; it is her delight, and ours, to see the truly ridiculous begin to make sense, followed by yet another contradictory bolt from the blue. Which we will have to chase down to its own conclusions. And so that is our Cat And Mouse game for the Adamsberg novels-- conducted by the author with methodical aplomb, but combined at every turn with the intent of deviously bedazzling the reader.
It's worth it to say that I tried to find a suitable passage to show how this all fits together, but really could not. Vargas weaves the page-by-page facts into the expectations and guesswork of the reader pretty seamlessly, and all games are long games. No aha moments, really, and to be fair, I guessed the villain early on--but no matter. The beauty of it is in the layered weave of reader's intuition versus author's architecture, which is built to intercept, and manage those intuitions. So, then, a literary palimpsest. A thing I had to look up; basically a text with overlays that do not sync up, but which may certainly reference each other.
Possibly I've made this all sound like work, or some inscrutable college course at an obscure école de logique, but no, not at all. Once grounded in the personalities and quirks of the criminal investigation department, everything proceeds along those familiar policier lines, dictated by practice and custom. The characters are good, the logic is breathtaking, and it's all fairly humorous, if you go along for the ride. ________________________________
Fellow travelers: Edmund Crispin, Michael Innes, Umberto Eco. ...more
Looks to me as though the odd numbers are cursed for Ms French. As anyone who's read In The Woods or The Likeness can tell you, this author is more thLooks to me as though the odd numbers are cursed for Ms French. As anyone who's read In The Woods or The Likeness can tell you, this author is more than competent with an elaborate mystery, and occasionally--- on the even-numbered outings-- is pretty brilliant.
In Faithful Place we have a 4oo page elaboration on the pleasures and pitfalls of the large-ensemble mystery. Simple as I can put it, the problem seems to be: 1st that you have to introduce and somehow fix each character in the mind of the reader--again and again, for a large cast. But 2nd, you can't go into such detail on the minor bit players that they overshadow the main characters-- all the while not tipping off which will be the villain--- but you must differentiate them so they don't all run together in a 2D splotch of 'types'.
In the thirties, this was often done with the now-endearing typecasting so familiar to Clue players everywhere-- Colonel Mustard with his bristly mustache, quiet old Auntie with the jeweled specs, fragile, fainting Heiress, plucky tomboy Sister, blustery but lovable college Brother just returned home... the list is permanently ingrained on every mystery reader.
Ms French is fairly adept in everything that she does, but manages to get hung up on the very his-fic sort of aspects of dysfunctional dynasty, family inter-interactions, and a kind of soap opera cast of characters-- that she seems to require, to inhabit her sprawling Dublin locale. In doing so, she gives us something closer to telenovela than policier.
Your call, innit. Me, I'm looking forward to her next, even-numbered effort. ...more
This compilation of loosely assembled thriller elements begins with a stupefying initial episode, an elaborate murder that also hopes to introduce theThis compilation of loosely assembled thriller elements begins with a stupefying initial episode, an elaborate murder that also hopes to introduce the reader to at least a dozen colorfully named characters. A couple are remembered, a much larger group are instantly confused. Following that onslaught of incomprehensible action, the rest of the book makes little sense, unless you count historical pastiche and shallow characterization among the attractions.
Let's pop a spoiler right into the equation at this early point... At two separate, climactic points in this book, two different but significant women throw themselves in front of bullets to save two men who are more plot-significant than they are. First time seems a bit contrived. Second time, yeah, okay then. Second time the same thing happens there is no excuse, it's awful. Something, everything here is on autopilot.
Most noticeable in the early going is the slathered-on quantity of art direction, the fact that no room has a table and chair but must have old French provincial chairs smuggled in from Haiphong on a Taiwanese freighter bound for Lisbon, and a breeze scented with the tamarind and sewage known best in the Latin/French/Jewish/White Russian/Japanese Quarter of Shanghai's shadiest district. And that's before we talk about the table. And who might be sitting down. Silent film actresses and Cossacks, possibly? Opium traders with their stylish Polish-exile mistresses, dressed in prewar furs? All of the above, and a gruff-but-likeable French colonial Commisioner Of Police?
It really seems like the author(s)/translator(s)/bots to blame here were writing descriptions of RKO black and white B-movies, hoping that stacking up imagined period detail would somehow amount to a novel, a milieu, an atmosphere of impending danger. As it stands, it suggests period re-enactment as rendered on a 3D Printer by a failing Bollywood studio.
Events that really would have needed some build-up, details that don't matter even as you read them, connections and explanations that have no bearing-- all get packed in. Something like the ice-cream counter guy who thinks they're doing the customer a big favor by packing on three, maybe four unnecessary scoops of ice cream -- onto an overloaded cone that will go into the hands of an overtired toddler, there is too much of everything here, and nothing to be interested in.
Two last features. The authorbots seem to think they're onto some hybrid Anais-Nin-sexy-Casablanca-meets-Quiet-American thing here. They're not. Also, bad 7os police drama dialogue.
If that doesn't get you sprinting to the bookstore for this, well, congratulations. ---------------------
note: I never read historical fiction if I can avoid it. I've ranted against the flimsy research and imagined insight that often pastes these things together; how can anyone who is, say, in their 4os right now expect you to believe him about 1931 Shanghai and the International Zone there? Did I really expect to believe the dialog, the internal conjecture, the emotional state of people represented when the author is wildly fabricating from trendy wishful-thinking about exotic eras? No, but I checked this too-long book out of the library and had nothing else for a week of agony. Never again. Sorry....more
Amusingly constructed in the cozy/village Christie vein, a rotating field of suspects and some standard English quirk. The first half takes off promisAmusingly constructed in the cozy/village Christie vein, a rotating field of suspects and some standard English quirk. The first half takes off promisingly with a couple of volunteer amateurs trying to flush out the culprit, but abruptly changes by mid-book to a more predictable police procedural. (I suppose the rules require that the cozy part have amateur sleuths, and that the policier half replaces them with cop-shop constables. Turf is turf.)
All in all an engaging mystery, a memorable cast, but atmosphere nearly nil and drama kept to a minimum. Solid airplane reading, and nothing to disrupt the napping intervals. ...more
Does one thing, and does it extremely well: the secret agent on-the-run, desperately out-thinking his pursuers. (This is the version 1.o agent-- the fDoes one thing, and does it extremely well: the secret agent on-the-run, desperately out-thinking his pursuers. (This is the version 1.o agent-- the film here is in black & white-- whose allegiances are not so much to a secret service or government, but to values and standards, hard lines that cannot be crossed without response).
Breakneck speed, some of the best chase across-open-heath material around, and a master class in outwitting the unseen stalker. Geoffrey Household is of the John Buchan school of clever, two-fisted protagonists and fight/flight suspense outings that are as invigorating and breathless as being chased by a lion. You will never again encounter the expression 'ran them to ground' in quite the same way.
My advice is to load this on an eBook, to accompany your next weekend business conference; pretend to make notes as you read, and watch the braindead motivational talks and datapoint presentations disappear-- with a satisfying "THWACK!" ...more
Spoilers, maybe. This was very disappointing, and moreso because it is represented as Håkan Nesser's last outing with Inspector Van Veeteren, his quirkSpoilers, maybe. This was very disappointing, and moreso because it is represented as Håkan Nesser's last outing with Inspector Van Veeteren, his quirky, intuitive investigator.
It's the usual thing when there's a murder connected to an insular group-- the Theatrical Company, or the family and staff of The Manor House are the too-familiar examples. Boarding Schools are another, with all the power dynamics below the surface. Pre-existing allegiances, unsaid antagonisms, odd customs and taboos of the group-- are all unsettled by the homicide, and then again by the intrusion of the detectives. When the group is a sect or religious cult, there's even more of this culture-clash and obliterated borderlines thing, generally including fierce animosity between investigators and cult people. And that is the setup here.
For some really off-the-wall reason, Nesser decided to time his novel for the height of summer, when small vacation towns swell with tourists, traffic gridlocks, nothing works properly, and everyone's more interested in their own vacation than in finishing or fixing their work at hand. This seems to include the police force, and at first puts an interesting spin on the usual rules of the roman policier. Strict punctuality and competence suffer badly in the heat of high summer, and the reader begins to get visions of a murder mystery conducted with the skewed, sideways logic of Godard's Weekend-- which seems plausibly entertaining. At the outset.
Rather than cataloging what should have been, and what goes wrong, it's probably best just to say that this mystery itself went on vacation; there is the slimmest of narrative lines that is obviously meant to be carried by atmosphere, sun-bronzed pre-teen cult lolitas, scenic Swedish pastoral backdrops and the general wifty laziness of high summer. But nothing is carried, and this all goes according to episodic tv guidelines: nasty murder, establish routine, another murder, upset routine, walk-&-talk the victims & the witnesses, surprise clue, stalk, chase, confront, book-'em. Which is to say that all this goes nowhere of interest.
Since other mysteries by Håkan Nesser are worth reading, and since there is translation involved, I'm tempted to just shelve this forever and move on. But to end your notable, award-winning series detective's career on this note? Something wrong somewhere.
This was more of a fly-over for me than a read; I had read the great novels, Strangers On A Train and The Price Of Salt previously, and was interestedThis was more of a fly-over for me than a read; I had read the great novels, Strangers On A Train and The Price Of Salt previously, and was interested here in the short stories (and somewhat, the introduction, by Joan Schenkar).
There are thirteen stories included in addition to the well-acknowledged novels; they are included in two groupings, early and late, and are a true definition of 'hodge podge'. I've never gotten the idea that Highsmith is very good at the shorter form, or at least very committed to it. She seems to be doing short stories just to give some themes or dynamics a little whirl, to see if they look like taking on their own life, but generally just concluding them without too much interest if not. They're entirely capable short fiction, starting very pulpy in the forties and concluding more wittily/ wickedly toward the 7os/8os.
(On the topic of the dates of the stories, it's hard to know exactly what fits in where. Schenkar unhelpfully notes that as editor she's not putting them in chronological order, and it's not clear from the publishing data exactly what came when.)
Rather than linger on the lesser titles it's probably best to say there are two very-significantly Highsmith signature pieces, called The Terror Of Basket Weaving and Not One Of Us. In each the sense of identity is questioned by a random prompt, and felt to be as cursed or unlucky as anything in Poe; in each, the author touches on human insecurities to ratchet up the tempo and dark atmosphere of the otherwise banal settings.
Highsmith has her regular, unavoidable themes, and when she strikes them either gently or full-on, the reverberations carry, and the next few layers of the story take on new drive, inevitability. A meeting on a train, a jealous or envious glance-- casual or fleeting, but all it takes for the next developments to click into place, disastrous and coincidental, sometimes murderous.
This volume is notable for the long pieces, but also a couple of the stories; it's an appetizer, though, for the rest of the menu, which awaits elsewhere. ...more
After sixteen weeks on a drilling rig, it is a lovely shock to find yourself with no mud in your ears, alone in a room with a young, expensive-lookin
After sixteen weeks on a drilling rig, it is a lovely shock to find yourself with no mud in your ears, alone in a room with a young, expensive-looking woman with lavender-grey eyes. "Hello," she said, still putting nothing into it.
Small world. Roll of the dice. Little or no chance. No rules. Nothing stays that matters, and nothing that matters stays. Luck will not apply. You know the deal, son.
Elliott Chaze has a pulp symphony on his hands here, and takes the reader on that classical, now-iconic ride right into the trash pit of 5os Americana. There's a bit of James Cain here, the too-insightful narrator who may be just a little too cultured for his lot in life. The caper, for which the kindest word may be 'crazy'. The wide open backdrop of Gulf Coast deep south, where the manners are misleadingly polite, and where the natural world is otherworldly, swamp to French quarter. Basically a sort of greek tragedy that hinges on imagination, weakness, and fate.
Well, that should do it, then, lots to run with in that setup. Oh one other thing. There's this dame.
... we bought her some jeans, too. And it was a good thing to see her trying on the jeans in front of the three-way mirror. She was all of a long slim golden piece, but there were sockets, too, like you see in Vogue, where the women by simply sticking out a leg in a certain way can make a denim rag look like something you ought to eat. The saleswomen in ladies' ready-to-wear cooed and giggled and smoothed, and she treated them with an easy friendliness. The expensive preoccupied smile dissolved and the eyes had a tilt to them and she practically dunked herself in the mirrors...
Chaze lets the reader drink up the lavender eyes and golden hair at precise moments that attention should have been directed otherwise; but you know he knows you know. You settle in for a tale of comeuppance that will rival Aeschylus or Euripides; we all know the road ahead is nothing but bumps, and these two are not in it for the jollies. This affair needs shock absorbers, maybe a flame retardant; there will be no easy out at the end of this one. In spite of the romantic wildfire, at the outset Chaze has our narrator calmly noting, "..my plan had been to get enough of her and to leave her in some filling-station rest room between Dallas and Denver.." Times are tough, no sense in playing the sucker. That's all before page 17.
And once again we're off on the American road trip that powered so much* 5os-alt literature:
She watched me, leaning back in her leather-padded corner, smoking quietly. Nothing seemed to surprise her: the car, the tags, the business of taking an uncharted trip with an unknown man. The wind whipped her bright hair, the way it does in the soft-drink advertisements, co-operatively, beautifully. The cross stripes of tar on the white highway thumped faster and faster until the thumping became a buzzing. The air was soft, yet not dead. And over all of it lay the very good feeling of going somewhere.
Nowhere to go, so we might as well go everywhere, and worry later. Sounds like a plan. _______________________ * 'On The Road', 'The Price Of Salt/ Carol', 'Lolita' --to name just three.
This is a perfectly brilliant mystery novel, and a fatally flawed one. The idea has unlimited potential : a murder victim bears an undeniable resemblaThis is a perfectly brilliant mystery novel, and a fatally flawed one. The idea has unlimited potential : a murder victim bears an undeniable resemblance to one of the undercover cops on the detective squad; with a little time and a hospital stay intervening, it might be possible to insert the undercover policewoman into the circumstances of the victim. The execution is what we're here to talk about. Author Tana French's first novel, In The Woods, was an intermittently interesting debut, setting up the conditions for a series, but --wisely, bowing out the male half of the detective team in time for this second novel. (In reviewing that one I resorted to the seldom-used description 'jerkwaffle', to convey that character's steadily waning appeal.) (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...)
Something, or a lot of things, happened in between that debut novel and this one; not only is the offending partner out of the picture, but the second outing does major surgery to the remaining female partner. She is no longer the all-purpose, somersault-turning Nancy-Drew-Plus-Wonder-Woman she was in the debut; she's now the narrator and completely human, realistically fleshed out with foibles and self-deprecatory humor. (On that topic, it was something peculiar that the humor touches were so forced and heavy in the first one; here it's light but deadly, sort of streaky and wild-assed, elliptical, in that most Irish of ways. As it only should do, in Dublin, ffs.) Unlike the generic street-crime and mob characteristics of the first, this second one is closer to a boarding-school mystery, or a coming of age novel*, which suits the writing and the authors sense of touch, of observation, so much better. So the 'something' that happened --has happened to the author, and her control and execution show the difference.
There's a literary quality here, and an ease with staging the drama, that just wasn't in the offing in that debut. Her occasional asides are delivered ruefully, in a voice that isn't even telling the half of it; which is to say, completely believably. The tragic backdrop of Ireland's past comes and goes throughout the novel, but not in overt doses. More like wisps:
There are stories like this scattered all over our history. Most of them are buried deep and quiet as last year's leaves, long transmuted into old ballads and winter-night stories. I thought of this one, lying latent for a century or more, germinating and growing like some dark seed, blooming at last with broken glass, and knives, and poison berries of blood all along the hawthorn hedges...
Let's get that flaw out of the way, though. Author Tana French has neatly, nearly classically sequenced her novel into five dramatic acts. The first introduces us and does a gently-pressurizing exposition as the crime scenario is sketched out; the second is the plotting-and-prepping, gearing up the strategy before -- the third act which is the vertigo-inducing, deep dive into Undercover, with all of its illusion, complication, and tension. All good--no, fucking great--this is some of the best, sharpest mystery writing going-- here French draws out the emotional pull, the tactical coordinates, the white-knuckle pace like a safecracker. The tumblers click and fall with uncertain logic and excruciating suspense, the clockwork ticks inexorably... Until.
For some reason or other, in the fourth act, the author opens all the valves and lets the air out. With one of those "confrontation" (and explanation) scenes, best summed by the sort of thing where Goldfinger is lecturing a handcuffed 007. And saying things, like "ah yes, but you are now, of course, in no position to make demands, Mister Bond," or similar. We lose all momentum and a lot of interest here in the Explainatarium, where the reader is sort of hoping someone is simultaneously being poisoned or the roof will fall in or something.
With the same wanton disregard for clever pacing, the fifth act then opens into a thrilling finale that rattles the scenery and finishes with aplomb. It is sort of amazing that this novel, longish for a mystery at 466 hardback pages-- is just about exactly one fourth-act too long. The sympathetic reader may note that the gentle build and the heartracing first second and third needed following with some kind of caesura or transition, but, well, the confrontation-explainatarium really wasn't it, and didn't improve with time spent.
Ms French trained in theater and her sensibilities and timing are on sparkling display here, mostly. This book is so head & shoulders above the debut that it was intoxicating to read, to see an able-enough author hit her very considerable stride, and spin a near-masterpiece of the genre-- that I almost have to think that In The Woods was a beginner-course, training wheels for what would come later. She may have even had the idea for The Likeness first, and known she'd need a little stretch and exertion before facing it full on. Very glad she did, one of the best mysteries I've read in a long time. __________________ * reverberations of literary ancestry here-- perhaps as befits a mystery set in the atmosphere of Trinity College english majors, but moreso than 'detective' influences. Certainly readers of Ishiguro, Waugh, James (even Joyce, as with the passage quoted above) will feel the echoes.
Putting this series on probation; three stars probably overstates the case, but the overall subject matter and atmosphere were pretty well done. The mPutting this series on probation; three stars probably overstates the case, but the overall subject matter and atmosphere were pretty well done. The mechanics, well ...
Author Whellams constructs a fairly unwieldy mystery here, and then keeps adding clanking bits and pieces as he goes, as if it's not feeling complicated enough yet. He sets up a giant wheel of coincidence and consequence that continues to turn when nobody is looking.. all that's good, if you can bring it to earth again. But the complexities are not always linked back to a root cause or causes.
One definite "don't" is having a couple of killers running amok on the same turf at the same time; it's no spoiler, that exists right from the first chapter of this very much too-longish book. That one is written in stone from the dawn of mysteries. A newer don't --is having a convenient Search Results History turn up on an impounded hard drive when the clues aren't forthcoming in a more natural way (that one and checking the Recently Called List from cell phones are now officially not-for-big-revelations-anymore; they've been hammered too hard and may only be used as incidental backup, (say I, in my new capacity as Master Of Rules...))
Last, along with losing sight of the idea that linkages should seem inevitable when revealed to the reader, when the truth comes out, it should be plausible. And it should never ever strike the reader that the finally-emerged truth was clearly constructed and designed to instill max mysterioso for effect. That happens here, a bit.
In fairness, Whellams has a good Detective character going, gets a lot of things right, and probably has a great mystery in store for us. Next time. ...more
A kind of miniature symphony, from Peter Dickinson, master of the alternative-style mystery of the seventies and eighties. (By which I guess I mean thA kind of miniature symphony, from Peter Dickinson, master of the alternative-style mystery of the seventies and eighties. (By which I guess I mean that subject matter and construction were often a point of departure for Dickinson; the familiar milieu of the classic English mystery provided the landscape, but he invariably has other things in mind. As author he strikes me as some eccentric Cambridge don who liked atonal music and talking to his literature students while everyone was tripping.. Tweedy to a fault, but unmistakably indie/alt. In a late 70s-80s way.)
The ornate Death Of A Unicorn coincidentally takes up that very fracture in sensibility-- the familiar postwar austerity-britain themes are deftly upended here, with a 'bookended' narrative that encapsulates two eras, late fifties and early eighties.
Semi Spoiler : Before we go much further, it should be said that the conclusion of this novel doesn't actually resolve anything, and that's going to be a dealbreaker for some readers. (How they could traverse the eras described so beautifully here and still nitpick the ending is beyond me, but there is no real 'eureka' at the finale. More of a bleak 'nothing is revealed' sort of closing.) For this reader there is such extravagant period detail, such an intriguing cast, such perfect voicing and pacing-- that there was no problem having no grand resolution.
We begin in the drab postwar era, though the upper-crusty ingénue heroine feels no privations beyond, perhaps, having to find suitable employment at a 'Tattler' style society magazine:
Until this morning I'd hardly thought about Night And Day. It was just another magazine, slightly more exciting than some of them because Mummy wouldn't have it in the house... she hated the 'Social Round' pages... she disliked all that sort of thing. I think because she thought that what they were about was extremely important but private, and it was obscene to have it all written down for dentists' wives in Wimbledon to read.
Dickinson manages a fairly unmanageable trick, that of giving the lie to the flighty, effervescent heroine's observations while never coming off as icky-male-author-does-ingénue or, even more difficult, never allowing the reader's affections to be separated from her voice. We're led thru a carefully constructed working model of English reserve in the coldwar era, elegant and fizzed up while being deliberately deflated, as we witness the spectacle.
Disclaimers aside, there is a mystery in the works, and it is just interesting enough to carry us to the second era, when great country manors are managed with droll despair by the formerly posh. More intriguing for me was the shift in the rules, the sea change in practicalities that were required to weather the cultural storm at hand.
It's probably safe to say that Dickinson was much more passionate about rendering these shifts, and the eras that produced them, than he was in hanging them on the frame of the mystery plot. I think he may have seen enough of the standard escape hatches: There was a secret twin! She was pregnant at the time! He was a deserter! She was married once before! He was secretly gay! -- Often enough he wanders pretty far afield, generally scattering the clues-solution model (squandering it, you may think) but looking instead toward the internal mysteries :
Mummy let go of Jane but not me and by swinging a few inches round managed to split us off completely from the others. 'I hope you'll introduce me to your friend, darling,' she said. 'Tom? He's in the other room.' 'The one who settles your account at Harrods.' She smiled at me, the witch-who-will-find-you-in-the-end. Ever since I could remember she'd been able to do this ... I discovered that beneath my recent happiness and exultation--part of it, adding to its excitement--had been the certainty that this was going to happen. Of course I'd sometimes wondered what I'd do or say if she found out, but that's not what I mean. The rhythms of my life decreed that she had got to find out... In dreams of escape you glance back along your secret path and see that at the entrance you have left your pullover, caught on a blackthorn, a huge and obvious clue for the lion-faced people to find. You left it there on purpose, though you didn't know, because that is the logic of the dream...
Looking back on this, my second read of the novel, I realize there is some danger in its not-quite mystery status for some to see it as a kind of disguised historical fiction; which it is not, though the only real defense to that is to read the other Peter Dickinson novels. They are nearly all mysteries-run-astray from the pack, and a good thing, too. Having read them all in their era, I'm now revisiting the better ones, and with much pleasure. Next up, Hindsight, Sleep And His Brother, and the list has only begun. ...more