Spoilers ahead. The book industry seems to have a longstanding sizing code in place for its product; differing products get their own standardized treaSpoilers ahead. The book industry seems to have a longstanding sizing code in place for its product; differing products get their own standardized treatment, via formatting or editing, to a genre-specific size. Popular Pocket books and Penguins of the forties and fifties seemed to have pretty set dimensions, and the page count was reliably 120 to 160 pages. Very often when we read a title these days it may come in a different format and the fact that it was squeezed or stretched to fit a now-nonexistent size... makes things awkward.
Interestingly there were actual federal postal codes in place in the Second World War, that allowed books of certain dimensions and weight to reach the troops overseas at very reduced rates. That may have had something to do with the rise of the Paperback. The direct beneficiary of this move toward portable, lightweight reading was the Pulps, a kind of sordid black-sheep relation to respectable books. They were action, horror, mystery, crime, sci-fi, and the kind of bloody melodrama that had covers with broken bra-straps and torn, lipstick-stained shirts.
Something about the noir sensibility lent itself naturally to Pulps and Pocketbooks. The telling of dark tales of fear and desperation somehow didn't promote a nine-hundred page rendering. At a shade over a hundred pages, the hardbitten detective thriller could still lavish the space for tricky exposition and character development, in plenty of time for the first corpse to appear. At ten to twenty-five cents a throw, however, the paperback still had to get down to business pretty quickly.
Margaret Millar's novel Beast In View runs counter to the standard noir novella (noirella?) in that no corpse finds its way into the pages for quite a while, at least within the narrow confines of a 157 page book. The reader is immediately immersed in a dreamy, paranoid world where the rules, the organizing principles, are continually revised or reversed. We're drawn into the sense that logic has deserted this particular Los Angeles tale of caution, but we have no side, no real stake in the outcome.
On the (increasingly distant) surface we have a fairly standard 'Threatened Heiress' situation, that develops nicely as an interesting psycho woman is seen as the antagonist. Sort of a Simenon with high quirk value. We have revolving viewpoints and chapters led by pursuers and pursued. Liquor and violence enter, as they must in this kind of story, and take their usual dizzying toll on the proceedings.
However. Too soon we have a body and the narrative blurs into low-grade melodrama. Murderous scorned women ! Perverse closeted homosexuals ! Ranting and raving ! Everyone becomes, at this point, some sort of psycho themselves. It's the downfall of pulp, perhaps, that there is no Good & Great Man to suffer the tragic fall. The milieu is always too morally ambiguous, and blurred by cigarette smoke.
Millar's intriguing noir setup devolves to lurid pulp boilerplate before our eyes, and that's too bad, a wasted opportunity.
The chapters when we're in the psycho woman's Pov fly along beautifully, with every appearance sharpening the keen jeopardy this character can inflict, just on a whim. She's literally chaos walking. As if to draw our attention away from the Twist that will come in the final chapters, she is the hard clean edge of a wave in an otherwise squalid sea.
Once the trustees of the safe world, the agents of the acceptable and civilized world begin casting their nets to bring her down, everything settles, and the novel loses all that unpredictable fizz and jolt. Chinatown it ain't.
These calls were what propelled most officers to seek promotion, she thought, not ambition, not the need to serve on a higher level or a burning des
These calls were what propelled most officers to seek promotion, she thought, not ambition, not the need to serve on a higher level or a burning desire to piss about with politics, but the craven need to avoid calls like this : face to face with the lost. This homeless unit was not for families down on their luck, or single men and women seeking work. It took wet cases, drunks and drug users, masters of chaos, people with open sores and transmittable diseases, those struggling with unsympathetic mental illness.. A good proportion of them would have been left to die under bridges in a more brutal time...
Third of the 'Morrow' series of Glasgow police procedurals by Denise Mina, and a fascinating outing nearly all the way. Mina uses the familiar 'rotating pov' approach to storytelling here, but with a different configuration. In that she has a really disparate group of witnesses, victims, detectives, facilitators-- each carries a backstory that needs some filling in. Rather than list the CV of each participant, she constructs complete set pieces, little short stories around the introduction of the key players. So that we're acquainted via a series of short movie-like introductions before we really know what that character's function in the bigger picture may turn out to be. Part of the mystery here is just the mystery of different kinds of people, characteristics established, arriving at a time wherein they will begin to interact.
So much like everyday human interaction, there are strings of impressions, inclinations, private glances, confirmed suspicions-- but as this is a murder mystery, measured at vastly increased value. Very much related to that narrative line, we have DCI Alex Morrow, whose most ingenious moments are in the reading of witness "tells", indicators of reversals, signs of intent. All in all, the exact moments you come to the mystery format hoping to experience, laid out with confidence in the nuances of the game.
(An aside here is that there is a particularly well done scene in which some professional hard men put the scare into a potential witness; two adult males menacing a young girl. There is always the risk in this kind of thing of the grotesque, over-the-top violence (of say, 'girl with the dragon tattoo') that is offensive and panders to a weird strain in whatever reader may find it gratifying. Mina orchestrates her 'scare' scene beautifully, winding up the fear & tension but managing to avoid getting gratuitous or appallingly gross about it. Let it be said that implying horrible things is infinitely more effective and masterly than just painting the walls with blood. Or worse.)
On the minus side of the book there is a lot of grander-scale plotting that feels contrived or ill-fitted here; to spin all of the short-stories here into the one resounding conclusion is a difficult task and the seams do show. But there is so much that is tense and engrossing within those boundaries that reader will hold on for the sheer adventure-- grim and unsettling though it may be.
If there is an 'Alex Morrow 4' I'll certainly be there.
In the Garnethill series, Denise Mina was able to conduct a tight suspense story and sew a raw, down-to-earth sensibility into the seams and cracks. TIn the Garnethill series, Denise Mina was able to conduct a tight suspense story and sew a raw, down-to-earth sensibility into the seams and cracks. This is a newer series and, though it got off to a slightly bumpy start in the previous book it wasn't fatal, and really only because it needed to set the stage for the characters, the procedure, the tone.
In this installment, the author has got her groove back. Here we have a rotating-point-of-view story that has its criminal element and its personal element, both somehow linked. Each pov angle has coordinates that relate to the bigger picture; but all is not apparent within that frame. Every compartmentalized story's view can only see through so many keyholes. Unsurprisingly (almost too common in mysteries these days) this works very well, and hastens the pace as we get to the confrontations at the end, where storylines merge, or sometimes shatter.
I'll not try to summarize the story(s) since that's the whole point of the novel. (What I will say is that the wasps metaphor and the 'Stander' incidentals are the kind of detail that takes a murder mystery a step above, toward literature. Stander!) Suffice to say that Denise Mina has hit her stride here, in a form that allows for a geometric plot structure below the surface, and a heady, elliptical moral sense that arches above. ...more
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 fLondon 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; and that includes even the learning-curve principal antagonist, who 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. ...more
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 dSpoilers 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. ...more
Questions, questions, and more questions. A never-ending procession of conversations and interviews and interrogations, every one of them at first gl
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. ...more
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 liProcedural 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. ...more
Ruth Rendell has now officially gone around the bend with the large-ensemble mystery and she doesn't care if you don't like it.
This is her fourth inRuth Rendell has now officially gone around the bend with the large-ensemble mystery and she doesn't care if you don't like it.
This is her fourth in a row, by my count, that features at least twenty characters and shows no mercy to the reader who's slow to pick up the thread. One of the hallmarks of this late style of hers seems to be just shoving a handful of characters right out onto the stage in the opening moments of the drama. And then more in the early going, and then, more in the middle.
Very often you get an introductory paragraph where you have to flick through your mental rolodex of characters : "Relatives came to visit George; Stanley and Helen, of course, and Norman come over from France, bringing Eliane with him. Maureen didn’t want any of them. All she wanted was to stay at home alone with George. The day came when she was due to take Clara ..."
All of the primary wave of characters are fairly old, so with that comes a long list of associations and memory. And the obligatory trail of parentage, exes, children, new spouses, business partners, grandchildren and beyond. A machine with lots of moving parts generates many perspectives, but let's be honest here. She's taunting you with the size and scale of her cast :
"Michael decided this not entirely out of altruism and not at all from duty. He had no duty to George. But since his visit to Daphne and Alan, he had reproached himself for having given up nearly all social life after Vivien’s death. He had kept up with Zoe, of course he had, but abandoned all his friends. There had been that single visit to George, and that was about it. Zoe would have wanted him to keep an eye on Brenda, but ..."
You get to the point where someone dies --of natural causes!-- and you're cheering for the reduction in sheer numbers you'll need to be shepherding along the way. You get to a funeral, you're thinking, ah, finally, the numbers subside, there is a natural falloff to be seen here, but then, in the bleak light of the church:
"Michael got there early, and was shown to a pew halfway down by a man in his fifties who said he was Stanley’s son. Four rows ahead of him he could see Lewis Newman, and near the front on the other side of the aisle Norman Batchelor was with a woman in a smart black suit and pillbox hat who couldn't be anything but French. Michael hoped Alan and Daphne might be there but realized that they couldn’t be because it was far more likely that Rosemary would be... A lot of grown-up and even late-middle-age children of George’s two marriages came in. One young woman was carrying a baby, which must, Michael guessed, be George’s great-grandchild or even great-great. Rosemary wasn’t there. Maureen arrived ... "
It's contradictory, it's perplexing, but it's Rendell, so you go with it. And it's worth it for the ornery experimental quality, the poignance of the elderly cast, and the sheer quirk factor. Four stars for the dark mistress of quirk, Baroness Lady Ruth Rendell CBE. Because she's the best there is at this game. ...more