Two-thirds of this book held my attention very well: these were the intertwined plot lines describing the intersections of master detective Billy BurnTwo-thirds of this book held my attention very well: these were the intertwined plot lines describing the intersections of master detective Billy Burns and master lawyer Clarence Darrow around the case of the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times.
The book's major mystery is, in fact, surrounding this case: in October of 1910, an explosion at the L.A. Times downtown office killed 21 people, and further bombings around the country followed in an episode of domestic terrorism that's largely been forgotten by now. The bombing took place while the Times was railing against organized labor, and so suspicion fell immediately onto their labor opponents -- who charged, just as believably, that the Times and its manufacturing/open shop supporters had set up the violence to frame them.
Although by halfway through the book, the answer to the "whodunnit" is clear, it takes most of the book before the consequences are apparently. I liked reading about Burns's investigation -- both the strong, smart leaps he and his detective corps made and the ruthless pursuit of their criminals. The parts about Darrow were equally compelling, as he's pictured here mostly as a man who is barely able to hold up his head, struggling with inner and outer demons, drawn back into the arena of grand argument so reluctantly that he nearly loses everything (again).
Blume does well to set the scene in the nation, and particularly L.A., at this time, so the stakes of Labor v. Management are well established. The city seems on the verge of riot and despair throughout, which usually makes the case more interesting.
Yet the book didn't, in the end, completely live up to its promise. The subtitle is "Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century." Terror and Mystery are covered in the investigation of this Crime of the Century. The Birth of Hollywood is covered through the third strand of the plot: a biographical discussion of the film director D.W. Griffith. Only at the start of the book and at its end does Griffith cross path with the other two major characters, and then, the meetings are completely incidental. He has no active part in the investigation, nor does anyone he know have an active part. His story is meant to be a parallel to the others', to serve as a specific example of the way that the expansion of cinema at this time influenced popular opinions in a new and exciting way.
That same example, though, could have been built without Griffith as a "character" here. The long stretches spent describing his bizarre behaviors -- for instance, terrorizing young women on the sets of his films to provoke emotional reactions, then sleeping with them, despite their minor status -- distract from the rest of the story. When, at the end, there's no grander purpose to knowing that Griffith was a womanizing visionary, I was frustrated with all the time I'd had to spend in his oily company.
Maybe it's pointless to jump into reviewing this series midway through, but K is the first book in Grafton's alphabet so far that's seemed much differMaybe it's pointless to jump into reviewing this series midway through, but K is the first book in Grafton's alphabet so far that's seemed much different than the others. I've thoroughly enjoyed the highly devourable mysteries A-I; J is for Judgment left a sour taste in my mouth only insomuch as it trespassed into non-mystery territory at the end, when (spoiler!) protagonist detective Kinsey Millhone discovers, basically out of nowhere, that she has family living not too far away. Her reaction to finding this out is pretty childish and initially in-character, but the open hostility and sustained unreasonableness of the character in the last 40 or 50 pages of the book made me hope for redemption -- or at least further development -- in K.
K seems promising in its plot, at first. A bright but stand-offish young woman, Lorna Kepler, is found dead in her tiny cottage. Ten months later, her distraught mother asks Kinsey to look into her death -- in part because someone has just mailed Mom a videotape in which the bright, favored daughter appears in a porn film.
The book slowly sinks, though, into tropes and bizarre complications. Lorna's lifestyle -- it turns out she worked part-time for the city's water treatment plant and part-time as a high-dollar sex worker -- is criticized soundly by nearly every character in the book, save one, her best friend (and fellow hooker), Danielle. Thus the book quickly divides into two groups: the fat, jealous women who speak about Lorna's life with disgust, and the thin pretty friend who's a hooker. Oh, and the men, all of whom seem to have wanted her. Kinsey's search for a possible killer leads her to San Francisco to check up on the porn film director and fellow actor. (The actor is one of the only friendly characters in the book, in part because he's one of the only surprising characters). There's really no point to this trip beyond, I can only guess, some kind of editorial advice that "maybe throw in some sex" was handed over.
The only fun in the book comes from some banter between Kinsey and a new-to-readers male cop, Cheney Phillips, who spends the first half of the book being strangely seductive and professional. At about the 3/4 mark on the book, he becomes a jerk (and magically gains a girlfriend), in order to slow the progression of the mystery and to force Kinsey into a moral dilemma.
By the end, three more people have died. All three die after Kinsey has received the clue that reveals who Lorna's real killer is; none of the three is confirmed to have been killed by the same person. In fact, the book varies completely from form at the end: not only are crimes left unsolved, but Kinsey doesn't even mention her final accounting with the family of the deceased (one of whom is implicated in an illegal act not long before the resolution). The epilogue deals with the (absent) consequences for the questionable moral decision Kinsey's made. I'd like to hope that might be dealt with in L, but this book leaves me no hope.
Why? Because J's issues didn't make the cut here. Though the family drama is mentioned, it's only mentioned once, in dialogue. Unfortunately, there does seem to be some form of bitter hangover happening for either the character or the author. The childish, bitter, unreasonable Kinsey of the J finale shows up from the beginning of K. Where the descriptions in earlier books have often found clever ways to categorize new acquaintances, this book seems rife with uncreative and insulting descriptions. An initial meeting with the sister of the deceased leads Kinsey to cunningly observe that, "From the size of her butt, she'd eaten many boxed cakes." That's neither creative nor funny. It's just mean. Her observations of nearly every other woman in the book are similarly critical and hateful. The men, on the other hand, come off nicely -- they're mostly broad-shouldered, sturdily dressed, friendly in their smiles, light in their eyes. (One exception: a stereotypical pimp, whose physical dimensions are basically repeated in a stereotypical john later on). Add to this the fact that the author, for some reason, spends time not only reminding the reader of how many calories Kinsey's daily run burns but also finding the only good quality in any of the women seen to be the bare, flat midriffs of Danielle and an actress named Cherie, and you end up with a book that feels like it's simmering with the repressed bitchy hunger of a character (or writer?) who really, really needs a piece of cake and a day out with some decent girlfriends.
In the eighth entry in the Maisie Dobbs series, Maisie is drawn into the British Secret Service again as fascism begins to flash in Germany and even EIn the eighth entry in the Maisie Dobbs series, Maisie is drawn into the British Secret Service again as fascism begins to flash in Germany and even England. When she's asked to take a position as a philosophy instructor at a controversial, peace-loving college in Cambridge, she runs into not only possible threats to the state but a murder -- all in her first week.
The mystery mostly concerns the comings, goings, and politics of the professors at the College of St. Francis. Founded by Greville Liddicotte (yes, all the names are this rough this time), the college was founded on the idea that peaceful negotiation is always better than war. It's facing an interesting challenge, as Nazism begins its rise in Germany and even England, and this makes for a fascinating philosophical background (if, at times, a very loose thread for the story to follow). When Liddicotte is murdered, his own motives for founding the school become as mysterious as the identity of the killer, and Maisie Dobbs is determined to sort it all out.
Behind all of this are the storylines continuing from the last two books: Maisie's budding romance with Viscount James Compton; the challenges that Maisie's assistent Billy Beale and his family face as a new baby comes to their overcrowded home; and a surprise visitor from her old service days who once again needs Maisie's help and understanding.
It's those last stories that make this book better than just average. The ongoing growth of Maisie's character was actually a pleasant surprise, and the best tension, in this book. The mystery itself is secondary; the state secrets part of the story was woefully underdeveloped and seems to exist only to allow the author to show that Maisie is ahead of her time in worrying about Nazis and fascism. The suspense of whether Maisie will torpedo her own relationship or navigate the tightrope between well-meaning over-involvement with her assistant's trouble and actually being helpful, however, is engaging. Not all of these loose ends are tied up completely at the end of the book, but the epilogue provides enough answers that I'm satisfied for a while.
It's a sign of how much I enjoy this series that I put off reading this book for several months because I knew that once I read it, there were no more books in the series to read. Now, though, the #9 book has been announced for release in March 2012: Elegy for Eddie, here I come! ...more
I have been looking forward to this book from the very moment I heard about it. P.D. James! Murder mystery set at Pemberley! A return to Elizabeth andI have been looking forward to this book from the very moment I heard about it. P.D. James! Murder mystery set at Pemberley! A return to Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy! Woo! The trouble is (and there will be spoilers from this point on, so go away if you haven't yet read the book but plan to), this book is enjoyable in exactly that order: It's P.D. James; it's a murder mystery; and after that, there's Darcy and Elizabeth. Don't worry, I'll explain.
The plot of the book is this: While preparing for an annual ball, Elizabeth Darcy's sister, Lydia Wickham, appears as a surprise, screaming that her husband, the villain of Pride and Prejudice, has been murdered in the woods. Darcy forms a search party, and they find that, no, Wickham isn't dead -- he's just kneeling over the bloody, murdered corpse of his close friend, Captain Denny. From this point forward, no one -- seriously, no one -- in the family ever questions whether Wickham is guilty. That may not seem surprising until you realize they all, instantly, believe he's innocent. The driving question becomes, then, Who killed Denny?
I think what I had expected from this book was for smart, capable Elizabeth Bennett to reappear and, perhaps, begin working out exactly what had happened, with the help of smart, capable, influential Darcy. Instead, and probably to its credit, the book takes a much more realistic path. Neither Elizabeth nor Darcy become private investigators. Elizabeth manages the household while Darcy recuses himself from magistrate duties and sets up a legal fund for Wickham. They both try not to wilt under the social pressure of having been associated with a murder and a murderer. Darcy goes, twice, to court. This is not the stuff of riveting social comedy, and it's also not the stuff of action-packed mystery. In short, the middle 50 percent of the book is kind of dull -- not helped by the fact that it often repeats itself.
The end moves more swiftly and provides many of the social twists and turns that Austen's own novels often did, and it's a satisfying ending. I did leave the book feeling wistful and full of want for more time to spend with Elizabeth and Darcy and their world, but the characters I was longing for weren't, really, James's extensions. I wanted the originals.
The book goes in and out of many, many different characters' perspectives; sometimes it's Elizabeth or Jane, sometimes it's Darcy, sometimes -- more often -- it's an invented character like the crochety overseeing magistrate or the old coachman at Pemberley. That's a fine way to put together a typical mystery, introducing villains or bystanders without explanation so that the audience wonders how things will fit together. Here, it made me impatient. I wanted more of the people I knew and much, much less of everyone else. Beyond that, nearly every character is, at some point, asked to do a lot of heavy exposition lifting out loud. The book is filled, as well, with run-on sentences. I've read James's work before, though not extensively, and I don't remember this being a particular problem of hers; I suspect it's supposed to be an imitation of Austen's style. I don't remember being lost in and by Austen's syntax, though, and here, I am lost and exhausted frequently.
This is a harsh review, perhaps, for a book that's actually meant very lightly. It's fanfiction, and it's not a bad sample of its kind. It completes exactly the path that I'd expect early fan fiction to take: James is eager, and indeed dedicates an entire chapter, to fix what she must have seen as flaws or loose ends in the original series. (She answers the question of how Lady Catherine found out about Darcy's proposal very, very unsatisfactorily, I feel). She clearly cares about these characters and has spent a good deal of time considering the realities of their world instead of a romantic vision (they have only just installed indoor toilets at Pemberley, for instance).
I came away from this realizing again that the wonder of Austen's masterpiece is that everyone has a different experience of it. Everyone draws slightly different lessons, and everyone experiences a slightly different world. Seeing someone else's recreation of Pemberley wasn't nearly as satisfying as I'd expected, even if it was mostly expertly done, because it did not align well with my own. ...more
It's strange, but somehow also entertaining, to read a "ripped from today's headlines" story set in 1931. In this book, the absolutely undefeatable MaIt's strange, but somehow also entertaining, to read a "ripped from today's headlines" story set in 1931. In this book, the absolutely undefeatable Maisie Dobbs is recruited by Scotland Yard's Special Branch to assist in investigating a terror plot, after her name is included in a threatening letter sent to the Yard. Right away, two things promise this book could be much more interesting than the last few: First, Maisie is actually injured in a suicide bombing not far from her flat, and her injury results from a miscalculation that she makes in approaching a man with a very black aura; Second, her assignment to Scotland Yard puts her back in the proximity of Detective Inspector Richard Stratton and in the orbit of his soon-to-be boss, Chief Detective Inspector Robbie MacFarlane. Stratton made no secret, in the first few books, of his attraction to Maisie Dobbs, and though he's been gruff and difficult a few times, he's one of the better characters in the book -- made nice enough that the reader wants to see him win Maisie's heart, even if Maisie doesn't. In this book, we get a nice slip into familiarity with both men from our increasingly lonely and isolated heroine.
Oh, right, there's also this mystery. Maisie and the Yarders are investigating threats sent from someone who wants to see full pensions restored to everyone who left the war. This leads to a lot of lectures from professionals about the sorry state of mental health care during and post-World War I. Thousands of shell-shocked men have been released from hospitals with no or little pension money, deemed little better than deserters for their problems. To attack the issue from another angle, Billy Beale's wife, Doreen, is also committed during this book after a suicidal incident. Her treatment at the first institution she's sent to is barbaric and deeply troubling. For a bit more synchronicity in the story, Maisie's best friend Priscilla is also beset by depression. When it rains, it pours.
The hammer blows of Winspear's indignation over the terrible treatments, therapies, and stigmas of the 1930s land heavily throughout the story, though the crimes planned and committed by the mentally-ill villain are so heinous that even those anvil-like reminders of his plight can't render him sympathetic. This is not a light-hearted mystery, nor is it one that someone whose stomach is turned by the thought of animal cruelty should read. Chlorine gas, mustard gas, and the like show up to extremely ill effect.
At the end of the book, I wanted desperately to see what Maisie might accomplish were she to join the Scotland Yard team (not that the offer was made). The last book had made me wonder if she wasn't, perhaps, a better character away from the familiar faces of London; this book has made me think she'd be very effective and entertaining if she were thrown again and again into the social mix of the Scotland Yard detectives.
This was a return to form for the Winspear mysteries -- a form that felt almost Agatha Christie-like. Maisie Dobbs gets a call from the son of her benThis was a return to form for the Winspear mysteries -- a form that felt almost Agatha Christie-like. Maisie Dobbs gets a call from the son of her benefactor (Lady Rowan Compton). James Compton is coming close to taking over the family business, and he'd like Maisie to investigate the strange vandalism problems around a property they are considering purchasing. This sends her out to the hop-picking fields with her assistant and his family. There, she discovers not only is there more to the crimes than meets the eye, of course, but also that there's a band of gypsies nearby. (Thus, Maisie's own gypsy history -- her grandmother ran away from her gypsy family to marry her grandfather -- is revealed.) Working with a local reporter and against a town wall of silence, Maisie uncovers a fresh horror from the first World War that implicates an entire town in violence.
The crime itself is a bit darker than those that have come up so far, and though Maisie and the author try hard to make a neat ending, it's basically impossible. I liked this, a bit, as it made all the twists and turns seem more necessary and a bit more realistic. The side-plot about her assistant's wife's continuing grief over their newly-dead child is actually significant for this story and the next, and it offers a very nice continuity of feeling and situation between this book and the last.
Maisie's on-going struggle to find herself a niche is mentioned again, but there's no discernible personal progress. What there is is a giant flag planted to let us know that Maisie Dobbs is a chameleon and an outsider at the same time. She's able to befriend both the townspeople (in the person of the bar-and-hotel owner), the gypsies, and the Londoner hop-pickers, and while she hears and a few times even mildly corrects prejudicial statements toward all three groups, she is never insulted by anyone. She never feels the sting of the prejudice personally, and this feels like a bit of a loss for the book. There seems to be a real chance for Maisie to grow through hardship, but she never encounters much hardship, even when everyone around her does.
Author Winspear flirts with giving Maisie Dobbs supernatural powers throughout the series, and never more directly than in this book, where Maisie actually dowses for evidence using a broken hazelnut branch. Normally, the turn to the supernatural as an explanation would be annoying to me, but in these books it generally works all right -- because otherwise, Maisie's ability to always be right about everything would have no in-text explanation at all.
One final note that may (or may not) have future implications: Maisie is more at ease with James Compton than she has been with any other male character in the entire series, which does lead one to wonder whether he might make a return appearance. Then again, Winspear is so far the champion of making certain Maisie has no real romantic entanglements, so... perhaps it's nothing, or perhaps it's just the over-active imagination of a reader who would like for Maisie to find a real romance again. ...more
I made it about 1/3 to 1/2 way through this well-written tale before realizing that it was the book "The Ninth Gate" was based on. On the advice of frI made it about 1/3 to 1/2 way through this well-written tale before realizing that it was the book "The Ninth Gate" was based on. On the advice of friends who know that horror movies give me nightmares, I abandoned ship -- which is a compliment, I hope, to the author. I was certain he could horrify me....more
I'm giving three stars instead of four for this book, which had some of the best and worst moments of the series so far. The mystery involves a painteI'm giving three stars instead of four for this book, which had some of the best and worst moments of the series so far. The mystery involves a painter, Nick Bassington-Hope, who falls from a scaffolding on the eve of unveiling his newest work at a gallery. Nick's twin sister, Georgiana, engages Maisie Dobbs to investigate whether his death was really an accident, as the police claim, or murder, which she suspects.
The piece of art itself hasn't been seen by any of Nick's closest friends or family, which makes the mystery a double search: for the truth of Nick's death and for the content of the painting. In investigating this, Maisie must wander through a somewhat foreign side of London: the fun side. While there's a lot of interesting mystery and detection, the most engaging part of the story has to do with the expanding social education of Maisie Dobbs. She goes dancing (on duty), she tries to enjoy her new flat, she --spoilers!!-- breaks up with Andrew Dene in order to be more independent. She's also broken free from her old mentor (after a fight in the third book). She barely mentions Captain Lynch. She even wears fashionable trousers! Somehow, though, in this book Maisie seems to have less fun than ever. Her decision to break up with Dene is quick and, for someone who's supposed to think so clearly about everything, muddled in its reasons and motivations. Her investigations are interesting, but she never seems fully interested in them. Instead, the book bounces from point to point, place to place, without ever comfortably inhabiting one strand with the full power of Maisie's supposedly legendary intelligence.
Throughout the book, there's nice attention to the struggle Maisie feels in her societal position. She's not of the same class she was when she was born, but she's not of the carefree upper class that she serves and socializes with, either. She's caught in between, constantly wanting to move ahead but feeling bad for those she leaves behind. There's actually several well-done moments that reveal this throughout, including her too-late intervention when her assistant's child falls ill. Though as a reader I wanted to see Maisie do more for Billy and his family, the reality of the times and situation prevented her. That was actually nice, if difficult, to read.
The problem is that her internal struggles come at the price of losing some attention to the external struggles of her investigation. Though Maisie may not be that interested at all times in what's going on with the Bassington-Hope case, it's imperative that the reader should be -- so the twists and turns, red herrings and blind alleys, that the author insists on exploring feel very much like not only Maisie going through the motions but also the writer. I wanted to care more about the entire mystery, but the players at the center of it were obscured for nearly the whole story -- making the final, emotional climax not very emotional at all. Like Maisie, we must lie in wait for the "villain" of the story to confess his crimes out loud in order to understand. A better story might have led us to understanding what he'd done without ever having made him give the Bond-villain speech at the end.
Overall, it was fine, but not richly written like the first volume. The fifth book promises a change from the norm, and I do look forward to picking it up soon.
I was worried, as I picked up the second book in the Maisie Dobbs series, that it couldn't be as good as the first. The first book, Maisie Dobbs, travI was worried, as I picked up the second book in the Maisie Dobbs series, that it couldn't be as good as the first. The first book, Maisie Dobbs, travels through time to reveal its main character's life history, which isn't quite incidental to the plot (but is, really, quite close). The second book would have to travel fresh territory: readers already know Maisie's secret history, after all, so the new charge set to author Jacqueline Winspear is to keep the story interesting while keeping it in the present.
A third of the way through the new book, I was a little disappointed. The mystery in Birds of a Feather surrounds a run-away daughter -- a thirty-something runaway, that is, and an overbearing father who wants her "returned." The mystery itself grows in danger as the book progresses and the daughter's oldest friends are found dead, one by one, but the story isn't nearly as gripping as the mystery of the first book because the characters involved aren't nearly so sympathetic -- until, about halfway through, two things happen. First, Winspear ups the drama in the book significantly by introducing a second love interest for Maisie, a drug problem for her closest associate, and a bit of deus-ex-machina difficulty with and for her father; second, she starts making the dead women sympathetic. This was enough to pull me through the rest of the book, and I was rewarded for this by an unexpected but interesting ending that revealed further complexity in both father-daughter pairs.
My biggest problem with this book was that Winspear's sleight-of-hand in concealing the answer from the reader was far too obvious. Several times, Maisie finds "something" at a crime scene -- but what "something" is or means is not revealed to the reader, lest she be smarter than our heroine and therefore able to figure out the ending. It's at least 100 pages between the first mention of finding "something" and the revelation in words of what that "something" is, and it's not terribly revealing, even then -- which makes me believe that Winspear could have better served her audience by showing precisely what the character found and then dismissing it as insignificant. (This is only slightly more suave than the leave-it-out-entirely-until-the-reveal tricks that Agatha Christie used to play).
Instead, there are two mysteries here: the one Maisie Dobbs is investigating and the separate mystery of what she's found. It's mildly frustrating and a little insulting, and if the rest of the writing didn't show real sparks of creativity and character development, it might be enough to scare a worried reader away....more
**spoiler alert** This was a better, if much stranger, book than the last in the Maisie Dobbs series. This time, Maisie finds herself investigating th**spoiler alert** This was a better, if much stranger, book than the last in the Maisie Dobbs series. This time, Maisie finds herself investigating three cases at once: she's called in to help a 13-year-old girl who stands accused of killing her pimp; she's asked by a friend of her benefactor to establish, once and for all, that his son is dead; and her oldest friend asks her to find the final resting place of her brother, killed in the war. As the last two cases merge (predictably, if too conveniently) and the first is pushed into the background, Maisie faces, for the first time in the series, real threats to her own life and health.
I am actually not a tremendous fan of action-mysteries. I like to watch the cerebral working of the detective, but rarely ever do I enjoy the chase scenes at the end. Though I was afraid that was where this book might have been headed, it stayed true, instead, to its quirky character's psychological training and pursuits. The tension created was always more mental than physical when Maisie finally confronted those who would hurt her, which I appreciated.
The book did a fair job, as well, of creating a sense of distraction throughout the entire book that was natural for the character. There were too many characters at many points -- in fact, every character introduced during the series was present here in person (save one: Lady Rowan was absent, though her husband was not), making for two books' full of Maisie's people: her father, her mentor, her boyfriend, her assistant, her best friend, her old lover, her dead mother, her friends from her days in service, her favorite constable, and her least favorite constable made appearances.
The trickiest part of the book is perhaps the strangest; after two books full of hero worship toward Maisie's mentor, Maurice, he is here revealed to have led a different life than she had suspected. The author draws back from considering him any kind of villain, and in so doing, makes Maisie appear foolish for having concerns about his character and her own safety around him. The ending -- the reconciliation -- between them is a bit too easy. It feels forced by the author's knowledge that the book has gone on too long already. I hope the rift and its repercussions appear again in the next book.
**spoiler alert** This book was pretty delightful, in the way that only a book that makes you tear up in public can be. Set just after (and also just**spoiler alert** This book was pretty delightful, in the way that only a book that makes you tear up in public can be. Set just after (and also just before, and during) the first World War in the English countryside, this book tells the story of Maisie Dobbs -- at first, just an interesting female private detective. Maisie, however, isn't the typical detective -- and not just because of her gender. Her investigations are psychology-based; she investigates for her clients and, in doing so, often uncovers secrets they must deal with themselves. The first example of this comes when she takes a case for a man who suspects his wife of cheating. When Maisie follows and befriends the woman, she discovers that the man she visits is, actually, a victim of a particularly sinister post-war gathering place for the most injured (and shell-shocked) of soldiers. In investigating this woman's secrets, though, Maisie (predictably, as the formula demands) must also unearth her own.
Though the book sticks to that predictable, reliable pattern, it's written with such charm and grace -- like a country cousin of "All Quiet on the Western Front," perhaps -- that both stories stay equally interesting as the book dips between the present and Maisie's pre-war past. We follow her as she grows from a bright, poor maid into the puzzling darling of her benefactor, and along the way, we meet the men and women who shaped her, broke her heart, and mended it all again.
I look forward to the next book in the series, though I do this with a bit of trepidation. To read another story about Maisie Dobbs where all of the mystery happens in the current time would be less interesting, yet to retread any past ground would discount the loveliness (and necessity) of this story. I'm interested to see where Winspear went next....more
Here's the basic summary: A nameless man is found stabbed to death in the queue before a popular London play. Though surrounded by people, no one manaHere's the basic summary: A nameless man is found stabbed to death in the queue before a popular London play. Though surrounded by people, no one manages to see the murder -- carried out with a small, sharp dagger, slipped almost expertly into the man's back at an angle guaranteed to kill -- and no one comes to claim the man's body. Through dogged investigation, Scotland Yard's Inspector Grant must figure out who the man in the queue is, what he was doing there, and why someone would want to kill him.
This is a search done well before Google, well before fingerprint databases, well before the tricks of NCIS and CSI. Grant pages through fingerprint cards to try -- unsuccessfully -- to identify his victim. He has to send a man to every department store that sells the type of tie he was wearing, hoping to identify its purchaser. The biggest break they get in the case is that the man's face is familiar to one of the usual suspects -- in short, the case breaks from a bit of luck and a lot of hard, shoe-leather work. This is actually more fun to read about than people tapping on gadgets, running computer searches for priors, and the like. It makes the human element loom much larger, and Grant is an interesting human to have at the center of the case.
Once upon a time, Elizabeth Mackintosh published her very first mystery story, in 1929, using the name "Gordon Daviot." This name was later replaced by her other, more famous pseudonym, Josephine Tey, which is the name that drew me to that first book in question, The Man in the Queue. I've read the famous The Daughter of Time, which stars the same inspector seen here, Grant, and I've read and enjoyed The Franchise Affair,, where Grant only makes brief appearances. What sets this book apart from those is its steadfast use of and affection for London. The Grant who appears in The Daughter of Time is an older Grant, holed up in a hospital room, unable to prowl around or investigate on his own -- it's a mystery as much inside his head as in any active location. The Franchise Affair takes place in the country and is mostly investigated by a country lawyer.
This book, however, lives and thrives within London and its surroundings. Certainly, Grant does venture to the country for a weekend -- on the job -- during the case, but mostly, we're in and around his usual haunts. It's a standard way to set up a series -- but it's also more daring than most mysteries of today. The case looks to be just another puzzle for up-and-comer Allan Grant, who's known to have good hunches at Scotland Yard. Yet his hunch in this case -- he eventually blames and pursues a close friend of the dead man's -- ends up being completely wrong. Unlike the more modern cases, where I feel writers let their detectives have the wrong man or woman arrested all the time, Grant's mistake has consequences -- for his own confidence and for the confidence of his superiors in him. There are consequences for mistakes. What a novel concept in the realm of the all-seeing-detective mystery!
The charm of this mystery is as much its time as its story -- and it packs a wallop of charm....more
This is a back-and-forth book of "historical" fiction by young (28ish) Graham Moore. It alternates between chapters in which Harold White, a young (28This is a back-and-forth book of "historical" fiction by young (28ish) Graham Moore. It alternates between chapters in which Harold White, a young (28ish) Harold White tries to solve the mystery of a man who has died at the preeminent Sherlock Holmes convention and chapters in which Arthur Conan Doyle and his friend, Bram Stoker, try to solve the mystery of a dead girl in a bathtub in the early 20th century. The White chapters center on a search for Conan Doyle's missing diary, in this book dated from October to December of 1900, the precise time during which we follow Conan Doyle in the other chapters.
It's a difficult balance. Sometimes Moore strikes it beautifully, and sometimes he falters. The middle of the book is devoted almost wholly to the Conan Doyle detection, which is a blessing -- because it is the more interesting part of the story, by far -- and a curse, as Conan Doyle is something of a grating character here. He is more interesting to read about than Harold White, perhaps because White is so plainly an amalgamation (as Moore admits in his author's note at the end) of many modern Sherlockians -- fans and devotees of Sherlock Holmes. Yet it is hard to read about Conan Doyle as he actually was, a man who looked down upon his readers, a man who was sharply against women's suffrage, a hypocritical, landed elitist during a time of poverty and challenge. Then again, I think it's his faults and unpleasant traits that make him the heart of this book; there is nothing so sticky upon which to hang a care for young Harold, who gets the normal shock that one so young and innocent and bookish always does in a book like this: having gotten everything he wants, he wants nothing but to go back to how things were.
This book at times delighted me, and I spent short hours lost in Moore's created world. When it frustrated me, it did so through the same charms it used to seduce me -- the promise of a formal, formulaic mystery was never revoked.
**spoiler alert** This is one of the few Wallander books that kept me up well past my bedtime, wanting to know what would happen -- well, not what, bu**spoiler alert** This is one of the few Wallander books that kept me up well past my bedtime, wanting to know what would happen -- well, not what, but how. That's the beauty of most of Mankell's mysteries; from the beginning, we know what the conclusion will be, because we see the hunters (Wallander and his detective crew) and the hunted (the killers, the criminals) simultaneously. We always know who we're looking for, even when Wallander doesn't, so every new page is turned just to see how and when he'll manage to put the pieces together.
In this story, which starts with a murder in Africa that triggers a serial killer into action, the police are chasing ghosts the entire story through. They have no idea what's going on -- and, really, I had no idea how they were ever going to catch this killer. A woman has decided to start killing men who have been brutal to other women. She goes about it in the most painful and awful ways possible, killing one man in a pungee pit, another after a prolonged, weakening kidnapping, another in a jute sack thrown into a lake. The murders and their descriptions are cold, calculated, and shocking. They were hard to read about. I kept reading because I wanted to see how the police could possibly close the gaps.
I kept reading, also, because the case is never the only thing going on here. It's brutal and it takes up all the space in every page its on, but there are other factors at play here. Wallander's father dies in this book; the town he lives in suddenly has a militia uprising that threatens not just his ideas of law and order, but the safety of those he works with. He is, around all of this, dreaming of getting a house, a dog, and possibly married to his long-term, long-distance girlfriend, Baiba. It's a lot.
In fact, it's too much, and Mankell allows for this. This book ends with Wallander as broken as he's ever been by events largely beyond his control. I finished this book -- the only one I had left in the series -- and I immediately wanted to read more. Not because I crave the mystery so much, but because this character is so well-formed. His life doesn't stop -- it never stops -- because he's a policeman. And every book is better, and harder, for that....more