On our weekend in Pismo Beach, I started and finished The Devotion of Suspect X, which was a fast, interesting read. The plot (saying anymore would pr...moreOn our weekend in Pismo Beach, I started and finished The Devotion of Suspect X, which was a fast, interesting read. The plot (saying anymore would probably ruin it for you, but as you can guess, there’s a dead person and it’s a who-dunnit) and the intellectual skirmishes between mathematics genius Ishigami and his university schoolmate Yukawa are engaging. The climax is quite gasp-worthy as is the character of Ishigami. But I have to say that the writing is nothing much to shout about – I keep comparing it to Natsuo Kirino’s Out (the only other Japanese crime novel I’ve read so far) and just felt I got so much more out of that one, a greater sense of character and place, for starters. There is such a coldness about The Devotion of Suspect X. Everything seemed so sterile and it just seemed like it needed a bit more meat. Still it was a fun read (if you find it fun to read about murders and cover-ups).(less)
So the first couple of pages of Villain don’t exactly make you want to jump into the fray. Because it reads like a rather boring travel guide, written...moreSo the first couple of pages of Villain don’t exactly make you want to jump into the fray. Because it reads like a rather boring travel guide, written by somebody who is rather into transportation and roads. You can know all you need to know about the tolls for vehicles between Nagasaki and Fukuoka, Nagasaki and Hakata.
I went along with it, and then comes the trigger. The last paragraph (of the first section) tells the reader of an arrest, of a crime, essentially spelling it out for you.
And that’s the thing I realise about Japanese crime fiction, at least the three that I have read so far (Out, The Devotion of Suspect X). That it is not about the mystery, it’s not technically a whodunnit, because you already know whodidit. Because it’s right there in your face, in the first few sections, the first few pages even. These books are more about the ‘why’, and the effect the murders have – on the murderers themselves, the victim’s family and friends, the other suspects.
Villain, by Shuichi Yoshida, brings out a different part of Japan, one of love hotels and online dating, and ageing seaside villages full of elderly residents. It is a quite ugly, rather lonely view of Japan.
“The scenery flowing past changed, but they never seemed to get anywhere. When the interstate ended, it connected up with the prefectural highway, and past that were city and local roads. Mitsuyo had a road atlas spread out on the dashboard. She flipped through the maps and saw that the highways and roads were all color-coded. Interstates were orange, prefectural highways were green, local roads were blue, and smaller roads were white. The countless roads were a net, a web that had caught them and the car they were in.”
Told from multiple viewpoints especially towards the end of the book, Villain shines when the focus is on the victim’s father, who struggles to come to terms with his daughter’s death, and his painful realisation that he didn’t really know his child at all.
Villain was an engrossing, thought provoking read, and leaves you wondering, who – or perhaps what – is the real ‘villain’ here.(less)
“She read books. She had always read books. But in this circumstance the books let her down. She needed more from them....moreOriginally posted on my blog
“She read books. She had always read books. But in this circumstance the books let her down. She needed more from them. She also needed less. More practical advice, less generic hysteria. What she required was a very particular volume, written just for her: What to Expect from Your Toddler When You Are Trying to Put Together Your Own Escort Service.”
Heloise Lewis is the envy of the other women in her neighbourhood. Or at least she tries to set herself apart from them. She runs the lobbying firm, she’s always stylishly dressed and put together, even at her son Scott’s soccer games.
But what the other moms and her neighbors don’t know is that the business is a front for her call girl service.
Heloise is a madam.
Her company, Women’s Full Employment Network, is
“a boutique lobbying firm whose mission statement identifies it as a nonprofit focused on income parity for all women. And when people hear that, they never want to know a single thing more about Heloise’s business, which is exactly as she planned it.”
And that pretty much is Heloise’s approach to her work. Very no nonsense, despite its rather tawdry nature. She is fully aware of the rules, especially those of the IRA, and tries to walk as straight a path as she is able, taking tips from companies such as Amazon.
Heloise is one tough cookie, stemming from her rather miserable childhood. With a father guilty about neglecting his other family (it’s complicated), she falls in with men who don’t treat her well, and ends up joining the world’s oldest profession.
Of course with Lippman’s prowess in detective fiction writing (at least from what I’ve heard about her Tess Monaghan series) there has to be a crime of some sort. And Lippman lets us know right from the start that there has been a murder – of another suburban madam. And that it might have something to do with her
The chapters flit between the strong well-defined woman Heloise of today and the more fragile, unsteady teenaged Heloise, then known as Helen. It takes some getting used to, this back and forth, but it allows the reader to marvel at how the Helen of yesterday has emerged from the tatters of her past to become Heloise today.
Laura Lippman has been on my to-be-read radar for a while now but when a writer has been so well established in a genre, I never quite know how to begin, where to begin, and too often end up drifting past those books on that shelf and going for something more obscure perhaps, or just avoiding this crime/mystery section all together.
So when I had the chance to read this book, thanks to TLC book tours and the publisher, I didn’t want to miss out.
And When She Was Good was a fascinating look into the details of the life of a madam, an absorbing character study of a rather different, quite unforgettable woman.(less)
I used to avoid the crime/mystery shelves at the library. You could find me in fiction, non-fiction, science fiction an...moreOriginally posted on my blog
I used to avoid the crime/mystery shelves at the library. You could find me in fiction, non-fiction, science fiction and fantasy, magazines etc but not the crime/mystery sections. Not until recently.
Perhaps I was unsure of where to begin, which series were good, which writers actually wrote well instead of just churning out book after book in factory-style mass production.
So I’ve been playing catch up.
Partly because of the very many series that have come from countries afar. Like Iceland or Sweden. And in this case, Southeast Asia.
Flint has created an interesting, somewhat different policeman in Inspector Singh, who hails from Singapore and is too fond of his food, resulting in a rather portly figure. Authoritative and imposing, but a little on the round side.
“Singh took a deep breath. He smelt the spicy warm scent of ikan bakar, fish wrapped in banana leaf, on the hotel barbecue. His nostril hairs quivered appreciatively. Wherever he was, the smell of cooking food was always enticing. Singh grimaced – even by his own standards it seemed callous to be longing for dinner at such a time. His ample stomach immediately protested his conclusion, rumbling like a distant storm. The policeman shrugged and ordered a cold Bintang beer and a nasi goreng. After all, one had to eat. He wouldn’t be helping anyone by eschewing food. Not, he thought ruefully, that he was helping anyone anyway.”
Inspector Singh is the Singapore Police Force’s representative in Bali after the aftermath of the Sari Club bombings (based on the real 2002 bombings which killed 202 people and injured many more).
This is rather curious as he is no terrorism expert but an investigator of murders (Singapore has to keep its terrorism experts around to protect its own shores).
And conveniently, there is a murder for Singh to solve.
For the police have found the skull fragment of a man who was killed before the bomb went off.
A fun read, set against a bit of a grim background. It isn’t quite hard to see where the story is going despite the myriad of characters that Flint tosses in (perhaps one too many?). But Inspector Singh, “a throwback to the old school – hardworking, hard-drinking, chain-smoking”, not to mention food-loving, makes for an amusing character whose cases take him to unusual and refreshing locations – in terms of crime series at least – as the series is set mostly in Southeast Asia.
You know, I just realised that I have read this series out of order. Silly me. Still it works fine on its own, and it didn’t feel like I was reading the second book in a series (which is probably why I only realised it now) and now I’m curious to see how the first book, A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder, will work having read the second one!
I am guessing that I wouldn’t fare too well as a police inspector….
’ve been wanting to meet Maisie Dobbs for a while now. But with a series that has been running for a while now (9 books since 2003!), I felt a little...more’ve been wanting to meet Maisie Dobbs for a while now. But with a series that has been running for a while now (9 books since 2003!), I felt a little intimidated. So many books! Was I too late to catch up? It feels silly to admit this but that is indeed how I feel about well-established series, whether crime/mystery or fantasy. I feel like the awkward latecomer, having closed the door with a bang, standing at the back, staring at everyone in their places. Of course books are more forgiving than that.
Yet it was with a little uneasiness (and also some glee) that I opened Maisie Dobbs, the first in the series, and settled down for a read.
With a steaming cup of tea at hand, I first met Maisie Dobbs at the Warren Street tube station in 1929 London. A newspaper vendor sizes her up, noticing her way of walking, her ‘bearing’ and decides she is “old money”, a “stuck-up piece of nonsense”. But as soon as she speaks to him, asking for a newspaper, he knows that she isn’t from old money. She does, however, have connections to old money. Lady Rowan Compton is her patron and former employer. But it is soon revealed that Maisie once was a maid in service, who cleaned the same Lady Rowan’s fireplace.
Today though, she is “M. Dobbs. Trade and Personal Investigations”.
She soon gets her first client, a Christopher Davenham, who is concerned that his wife is betraying their marriage. But after following Celia Davenham around, Maisie discovers the truth:
“Maisie knew that she had found the lover, the man who had caused Christopher Davenham to pay a princely sum for her services. The problem was that the man Christopher Davenham thought was cuckolding him was dead.”
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Vincent, the man Celia loved, died in a supposed accident at The Retreat, a farm for disfigured or disabled ex-soldiers. It turns out that James, Lady Rowan’s son, is due to join the same retreat.
“As she locked the door behind her, she reflected upon how strange it was that a man who had significant financial resources, time, and a beautiful house in the country would seek the peace and quiet that might dispel his dark mood by going to live on a stranger’s farm. Making her way downstairs in the half-light shed by the flickering gas lamp, Maisie felt a chill move through her body. And she knew that the sensation was not caused by the cold or the damp, but by a threat – a threat to the family of the woman she held most dear, the woman who had helped her achieve accomplishments that might otherwise have remained an unrealised dream.”
Then the book takes us back in time to 1910, Maisie is just 13 and her father is a widower who knows she needs more than he can provide. He finds her a place in the service of Lady Rowan. Lady Rowan’s home has a remarkable well-used library, and part of Maisie’s job is to light the fire at five every morning. She begins to linger a little longer before starting her work. She daringly begins to visit the library at 3, before the house starts to stir, giving her two hours before she has to start work. She heads first for the philosophy books:
“The feeling inside that she experienced when she saw the books was akin to the hunger she felt as food was put on the table at the end of the working day. And she knew that she needed this sustenance as surely as her body needed its fuel.”
But one day she is caught reading Latin by Lady Rowan, who is up late after a party. Instead of being sacked, Maisie finds herself being tutored by their friend Dr Maurice Blanche every fortnight (still working as a housemaid that is), and later, making her way to Girton, the women’s college of Cambridge. As Lady Rowan explains:
“Lord Compton and I are believers in education and opportunity. However, opportunities to contribute directly are rare.”
But the war intervenes and Maisie volunteers as a field nurse and finds herself falling for an army doctor.
“The writers said nothing of love when the first letter, from Simon to Maisie, was sent and received. But in the way that two people who are of one mind on any subject move closer, as if their heads were drawn together by thoughts that ran parallel toward a future destination, so the letters of Simon and Maisie became more frequent, one hardly waiting for the other to reply before setting pen to paper again. Bearing up under exhaustion that weighed on their backs and pushed like a fist between their shoulder blades, Simon and Maisie, each in a tent several miles apart, and each by the strained light of an oil lamp, would write quickly and urgently of days amid the detritus of war. And though both knew that war, and the ever-present breath of despair might have added urgency to their need to be together again, they began unashamedly to declare their feelings in the letters that were passed from hand to hand. Feelings that, with each shared experience and story, grew deeper.”
Maisie’s backstory grows on you, her humble beginnings, her intellect, the opportunities she doesn’t hesitate to take, are quite something. However, it was a bit hard to initially accept the seeming ease at which Maisie goes from maid to maid/student, and that the rest of the staff accept this without question. Then again, perhaps Lady Rowan’s reputation as a suffragette precedes her.
This book is typed as a crime/mystery but for me, it was about the glimpses of London, during and after WWI, ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’, and life as a field nurse. I really enjoyed the second third of the book
To be honest, Maisie Dobbs’ first mystery isn’t all that suspenseful a read (her investigative skills are a mix of psychology and observation, which, while it makes for interesting details observed, means that there isn’t much in terms of plot twists, at least not in this first book), and the climax, well, I wasn’t really holding my breath. I guess this first book in the series might be more about establishing the backstory (a great backstory by the way) and introducing the characters of the series, than about the case itself.
But as Maisie Dobbs is an intriguing, intelligent woman, it made for an enjoyable read, and I’m definitely looking forward to reading the next book in the Maisie Dobbs series!(less)
The rain has soaked the hair Falling to your shoulders Light green in your policewoman’s Uniform, like the spring White blossom bursting From your arms rea...moreThe rain has soaked the hair Falling to your shoulders Light green in your policewoman’s Uniform, like the spring White blossom bursting From your arms reaching Into the gaping windows - ‘Here you are!’
About the last thing I expected from this detective novel was a poetry-spouting Chief Inspector.
Chen not only recites classical Chinese poetry but is himself a published poet – as well as a translator of western poems and even mysteries. And he is a bit of a gourmet as well.
I love when writers detail meals. All too often I read of how characters ‘sat down to dinner’ and I’m just dying to know, yes but what exactly did they eat??
So when we first meet Chief Inspector Chen as he is prepping for a housewarming dinner at his new apartment, I am delighted:
“For the main dishes, there were chunks of pork stomach on a bed of green napa, thin slices of smoked carp spread on fragile leaves of jicai, and steamed peeled shrimp with tomato sauce. There was also a platter of eels with scallions and ginger, which he had ordered from a restaurant. He had opened a can of Meiling steamed pork, and added some green vegetables to it to make another dish. On the side, he placed a small dish of sliced tomatoes, and another of cucumbers. When the guests arrived, a soup would be made from the juice of the canned pork and canned pickle.”
It sounds like an interesting mix of gourmet and simple homecooked dishes, which reflects on the character of Inspector Chen. An educated man and a published poet who attended the Beijing Foreign Language College, he then heads the Shanghai Police Bureau’s Special Case Squad, a job that seems to be a bit at odds with his more intellectual, thoughtful personality.
But of course his insightfulness is key to this case.
“She had been lying there, abandoned, naked, her long dark hair in a coil across her throat, like a snake, in full view of two strangers, only to be carried away on a stretcher by a couple of white uniformed men, and in time, opened up by an elderly medical man who examined her insides, mechanically, and sewed the body together again before it was finally sent to the mortuary. And all that time Chief Inspector Chen had been celebrating in his new apartment, having a housewarming party, drinking, dancing with a young woman reporter, talking about Tang dynasty poetry, and stepping on her bare toes.”
Essentially, there is a dead woman whose body has been unceremoniously dumped in a garbage bag and tossed into a canal. It turns out that she is a celebrity in the political sense, as she is National Model Worker Guan Hongying, chosen as a role model by the Party. There soon emerges to be even greater political implications in this case, and Chen – as well as his subordinate Detective Yu – is forced to choose between doing what’s right for the case and the victim, or what’s right as determined by the Party.
Politics is at the heart of this story.
“‘Everything can be seen in terms of politics,’ Chen got up, pausing in the doorway, ‘but politics is not everything.’ Such talk was possible now, though hardly regarded as in good taste politically. There had been opposition to Chen’s attaining promotion – something expressed by his political enemies when they praised him as ‘open’, and by his political friends when they wondered if he was too open.”
There are High Cadres who are at the top of the ladder, and their privileged children, the High Cadre Children (HCC), who have fancy cars and live in large mansions and all those other aspects of an extravagant lifestyle. While Chen is himself a rising star (although his artistic side leads to some doubts) and has a new apartment to himself, he ranks far below these HCs and HCCs. And all of this contrasts with the life of the victim Guan, who despite her ‘celebrity’ status lived in a dormitory:
“A closer examination revealed many signs of neglect characteristic of such dorm buildings: gaping windows, scaling cement, peeling paint, and the smell from the public bathroom permeating the corridor. Apparently each floor shared only one bathroom. And a quarter of the bathroom had been redesigned with makeshift plastic partitions into a concrete shower area.”
Death of a Red Heroine was steeped in such vivid details of everyday life in 1990s Shanghai, both the lives of regular folk and of the privileged, sometimes surprisingly seedy.
I have to add a note of warning to those expecting a fast-paced, exciting crime/mystery novel. This isn’t quite that. The case moves a little slowly, not just because of all that politicking going on, but because the detectives take buses, they do research at the public library, and towards the end, are forced to surreptitiously pass information to each other. It’s complicated, but the book still flows well despite its length (464 pages).
I had a great time with this book, reading some bits of classic Chinese poetry, learning about life in 1990s China, and best of all, learning about the diverse cuisine of China. Although I am ethnically Chinese, Chinese food in Singapore is probably different from that of China (I can’t say for sure, as I’ve never been). Like the ‘across-the-bridge noodles’ (过桥米线 or guòqiáo mĭxiàn) that Detective Yu’s wife Peiqin cooks for Inspector Chen, essentially a platter of rice noodles served along with side dishes like slivers of pork, fish and vegetables, and of course some steaming hot soup.
The story behind the noodles, according to the book, was that during the Qing Dynasty, a scholar studied on an island, his wife had to carry his meals across a long bridge and when it reached him, the noodles were cold and soggy. So the next time, she kept the noodles separate and only mixed them when with her husband. A recipe can be found here.
I’m looking forward to the next Inspector Chen book, and can only hope that there will be plenty of foodie details to chow on.
It is London, 1853. Twelve-year-old orphan Mary Lang is rescued from the gallows (sentenced for the crime of housebreaking, poor thing) by Anne Trelea...moreIt is London, 1853. Twelve-year-old orphan Mary Lang is rescued from the gallows (sentenced for the crime of housebreaking, poor thing) by Anne Treleaven, the head teacher at Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls, a charity school of sorts that selects its students. Now 17, she has been invited to join the Agency, which ‘complements’ the Academy:
“Here, we turn the stereotype of the meek female servant to our advantage. Because women are believed to be foolish, silly, and weak, we are in a position to observe and learn more effectively than a man in a similar position. Our clients employ us to gather information, often on highly confidential subjects. We place our agents in very sensitive situations. But while a man in such a position might be subject to suspicion, we find that women – posing as governesses or domestic servants, for example – are often totally ignored.”
Mary’s first job (after just one month’s training?!) is as a paid companion to spoilt Angelica Thorold, the daughter of Henry Thorold, suspected of financial crimes, and Mrs Thorold, an invalid. She is to listen out for any news on illegal businesses that Thorold and his secretary Gray, who lives at the house, may discuss.
At a party, she meets James Easton, the younger brother of one of Henry Thorold’s potential investors, who is also investigating Thorold for his own reasons. And they agree to cooperate with each other (she gives him some pretense about looking for a maid who was made pregnant by Thorold) and of course there’s some potential love interest happening here.
The first couple of chapters of the book move fast. Perhaps too fast. We barrel our way from the gallows to joining the academy and then next thing we know, she is 17 and joining the Agency (all in the first 9% of the book – I was reading a library e-book so I don’t have page numbers). I would’ve loved to read a little about life at the school or her training before joining the Agency, or perhaps learn more about Anne, who seems very flat at the moment. The pace slows down (at least when compared to the light speed of the first couple of chapters) when we get to her first assignment but it’s not a very exciting job. Mrs Thorold spends her time visiting doctors, Angelica seems to mostly mope around at home.
So Mary takes matters into her own hands, and sneaks into Thorold’s warehouse to snoop around, getting herself into all sorts of near misses and scrapes. Yeah so she does some silly things, maybe it’s because of a shortened training stint??
Anyway, Lee often hints that there is something different about Mary:
“Where are you from?”
Angelica snorted. “With those eyes and that hair?”
Mary couldn’t prevent a defensive blush. “My mother was Irish. Some Irish people have dark eyes and hair.”
“Only half English…” Angelica twisted her mouth in distaste.
It’s not all that hard to guess where Lee is going with this, but I will leave it to you to figure it out or read the book.
I’m curious to see how the second book in the series goes. Hopefully there will be more details about the Agency itself.(less)