Tuesday, March 21, 2017

oh! RIP Colin Dexter -- one of my all-time favorite authors.

from The Independent
I've just heard that Colin Dexter passed away today.  I cut my crime-novel reading teeth on his Morse series,  which gave me hours and hours of pleasure,  and I will remember him as one of my favorite crime writers of all time.

Perhaps it's time for a Morse reading retrospective.

Requiescat in pace

*Mademoiselle de Scudéri, by E.T.A. Hoffman

Hesperus Press, 2002
originally published in 1819
translated by Andrew Brown
90 pp


"Un amant qui craint les voleurs
n'est point digne d'amour." 

Finally getting myself back on track here, I've just finished  E.T.A. Hoffman's Mademoiselle de Scudéri, which has been seen by many  as an early, pre-Poe example of the detective story. In his foreword, Gilbert Adair also notes that this is so, and he notes that Mademoiselle de Scudéri is a "genteel elderly spinster not a thousand miles away from Agatha Christie's Miss Marple."  He may be right, and in that sense, this short novella is definitely worth reading by anyone at all interested in the history of the genre, and to be more specific, in the history of the female amateur detective.  

Set in Paris, "the scene of the most heinous atrocities," during the reign of Louis XIV, this tale comes on the heels of the infamous ""affair of the poisons" of 1677 that resulted in the establishment of the Chambre ardente, a special tribunal headed by Gabriel Nicolas de La Reynie. As Hoffman reveals,
"The tribunal completely assumed the character of an inquisition, the slightest suspicion was sufficient to lead to brutal incarceration, and it was often left to chance to demonstrate the innocence of the person accused of a capital crime." 
Just FYI, I'm not offering a history lesson here -- all of this is relevant to the case in which la Mademoiselle finds herself embroiled. It seems that while the poisonings have become "less and less frequent," another series of crimes finds its way onto the streets of Paris. This time it is the theft of jewelry, assumed to be the work of a "gang of thieves" who were out to "get its hands on all the jewels in town". Their victims are all men who have purchased "rich jewellery" -- not only are they robbed, but they are either knocked out or murdered.  All of the dead men showed the same sort of wound: "a dagger-thrust to the heart which ... killed so swiftly and surely that the wounded victim simply fell to the ground, unable to utter a sound."  Despite strengthened police presence, the thefts and murders continued, and  it wasn't long until people began to believe that perhaps
 "it really was the devil himself protecting the heinous villains who had souls their souls to them."
 This story takes place in 1680.  Around midnight a "cloaked figure" makes his way to the home of the celebrated Mademoiselle de Scudéri on the rue St. Honoré, demanding to see her. She is asleep, but in talking to the maid, he leaves behind a small casket that he demands be given to her.  The next day, upon inspection, it is found to contain "a pair of golden bracelets richly adorned with jewels" and matching necklace, along with a note signed by "The Invisibles" who thank her for her "wit" which has saved them "from great persecution." The jewelry is a gift, a token of their "gratitude," and she is appalled that this notorious gang of thieves and murderers would even consider that she was their friend in some way. Taking the jewelry to her friend (and the mistress of  the king) Madame de Maintenon, she discovers that the pieces were all the creations of René Cardillac, "the most skillful practitioner of his art, not only in Paris, but perhaps of his whole age," who when questioned, reveals that the jewelry had "inexplicably disappeared" from his workshop. Later, when Cardillac turns up dead, Mademoiselle de Scudéri suddenly and somewhat reluctantly finds herself deeply involved in the case, finding herself in direct opposition to the notorious chambre ardente. 

I had great fun with this story.  It may not be the greatest literature ever written, as it leans a bit to the side of melodrama toward the end, and it ultimately depends a great deal on coincidence (both part of my normal reasons for not enjoying a book),  but I have to say that after all has been revealed, the story becomes much more than just a work of crime fiction. The historical aspects are fascinating -- the affair of the poisons and its psychological aftermath,  the concerns that the devil and his henchmen are active agents on the streets of Paris, the creation and operations of the chambre ardente all make for great reading.  The personal history and the psychological motives underlying the acts of the villain of this piece are also quite interesting, and as Adair has noted in his foreword, it is vintage Hoffman.    I won't explain, but I would suggest not reading anything at all about this book that gives away much more than the dustjacket cover blurb. Heck, don't even read the foreword or the introduction if coming to this book with, as Adair says, "an 'innocent' eye."

I know that a number of people didn't care too much for Mademoiselle de Scudéri, and I can sort of understand their reasons why.   However, as a step toward modern crime fiction, it is of great interest to me as a reader of the genre, and in that sense, it is well worth the time, and I'm very happy to have read it.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Iron Gates, by Margaret Millar

Avon, 1974
originally published 1945
191 pp


It was like Christmas here a few days ago when I moved some stuff out of the closet space under the stairs and discovered boxes and boxes and boxes of old mass market paperback mystery novels that I'd forgotten I owned.  I opened one, and this book was staring at me -- so naturally, I had to read it.   Whoa! I had forgotten just how much I like Margaret Millar's work, but reading this novel brought it all back in a hurry.

The draw for me is that Millar doesn't present the usual crime-investigation-solution type plot. Her books, like all of my favorites in suspense/crime/mystery, look deep into the human mind.  As this article from a Canadian writer notes,
"she was far more concerned with the psychological ramifications of relationships, especially the toxicity that builds up and destroys marriages." 
Kathleen Sharp, writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books notes another quality that keeps me glued to Millar's novels when she says that the author
"explored female characters as they battled the daily accretions of frustrated ambition and blocked power, often while trying to keep a grip on their own sanity."
While I won't go into detail as to how The Iron Gates embodies the psychology that both of these writers have described, and more,  it was a book I couldn't put down.   As a sidebar note, I do have to mention here that Sharp's description of The Iron Gates in that article as a "gothic novel about abortion" is incorrect, but the article itself is still worth reading.

from Women Crime Writers of the 1940s & 50s

The first thing worth mentioning here is that this book is structured in three parts that reflect the inner workings of the novel itself.   In Part One, "The Hunt," we meet Lucille Morrow, wife of physician Andrew Morrow, stepmother to Martin and Polly Morrow (both in their 20s) and sister-in-law to Edith.  Martin and Polly have never fully accepted her marriage to their father after the death of their mother Mildred some sixteen years earlier, which sets up major domestic tension especially between Lucille and Polly.   And while Lucille has been aware of the Morrow siblings' feelings about her over the years, she also realizes that in the long run, she has everything she wants, and as she says in her mind, "neither of you can take anything away from me."  There's only one thing really wrong as far as Lucille goes, and that is her jealousy toward the long-dead Mildred, but somehow she manages to keep her feelings to herself so as not to cause even more problems in the house.  Life, in short, is good and quite comfortable for Lucille, but things take a bizarre turn on the day after the arrival of Polly's fiancé Giles. While Edith, Polly and Giles are out shopping and Martin and Andrew are at work, the doorbell rings and a shabbily-dressed man hands one of the maids a parcel which is dutifully delivered to Lucille, resting upstairs. Shortly afterwards Andrew phones, and the maids notice that Lucille is nowhere to be found --  she's simply disappeared,  taking nothing with her but one of the maid's coats.  The police, of course, get involved, and the fact that it's the Morrow family draws the attention of Inspector Sands, who has been

"interested in the Morrow family for a long time...For about sixteen years." 

In Part Two, "The Fox," Lucille resurfaces in a place where
"She felt safe again. Behind her there was an iron gate and a hundred doors that locked with big key."
Sands wants to know what drove Lucille to take refuge in an asylum, and beyond that, why so many deaths have occurred since her disappearance.   It's not just Sands, either -- it's at this point that the reader also begins to wonder what's up with Lucille as we are made privy to the stream-of-consciousness musings reflecting her inner turmoil, and quite a different woman emerges miles apart from the cool, composed lady of the Morrow house from Part One.  The inspector's investigation leads him to, in Part Three "The Hounds,"  a shocker of a revelation that frankly, I didn't see coming, although I had great fun playing armchair detective in this one.

One of the excellent things about The Iron Gates is that Millar goes well beyond just the crimes in this novel, and she takes the time to psychologically flesh out most all of the players involved in her story -- the family, the side characters who will play a role in this story, the police, the other women in the asylum, and she does so without detracting one whit from the suspense.  She has an excellent sense of balance here -- while  there's a detective involved,  the focus stays on the characters so that The Iron Gates never becomes his story or hinges on his investigation, and  Millar never takes her eyes off of the psychological aspects of the characters for which she is so famous and which really sets her work apart from many suspense/crime writers of the same period, both male and female. Vintage crime readers ought not to miss this one, and anyone interested in the work of women crime writers might wish to consider this book, or for that matter, any novel written by Margaret Millar.  Don't plan on getting anything done once you start reading, because this book hooks you at the start and doesn't let up.

Recommended, absolutely!!!

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau, by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Contraband/Saraband, 2014
244 pp


At page 90 I started thinking that this book has a Simenon sort of feel to it, and then on page 95, I came across a passage describing one of the characters who "devoured Simenon."  By the time I finished this book, I came to the conclusion that the author must also be a fan of the Belgian author, because like Simenon's romans durs, Burnet's focus in The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau isn't so much on a specific crime, but rather on what's going on inside the heads of the two main characters.

The setting is also part and parcel of this story -- as he noted in an interview at Bloody Scotland, the author visited the  French town of Saint-Louis, where he observed and was "captivated by the sense of unchanging routine and claustrophobia," words which, up until the titular disappearance of Adèle Bedeau, also describe the main character, Manfred Baumann.  He is a bank manager, a creature of habit and strict self control living a rather mundane and routine life. As we discover,
"If he lived the way he did, it was because that was how he wanted to live. He had no desire to change anything." 
He has lunch every Thursday at La Cloche, and even there things are always routine -- he has a regular table, he always orders the same lunch -- "onion soup, pot-au-feu, crème brulée".  Only once has he changed his order, thinking it might perhaps get the attention of the waitress Adèle; he even goes so far as to order a second glass of wine, both out of character. At one point, he even goes so far once to remark on her appearance.   His fantasies about Adèle provide a break in his otherwise unremarkable existence, as do his regular visits to a brothel where even the sex is routine.

Manfred would have most likely continued on in this unchanging life had it not been for Adèle's disappearance, which brings in the second character under study here, Detective Georges Gorski.  At age sixteen, he had understood that he was meant to take over the family's business, but he had decided instead to become a policeman.  At age eighteen he joined the force, did time on the beat (during which time he came to realize that he was being favored as "the inspector's protégé"), and made detective in his mid-twenties.   Gorski realized that "there was little in the way of crime to be solved" in Saint-Louis, and set his sights on "more exciting pastures...somewhere alive with crime, violence and murder." His first big chance came in the form of the murder of a young girl for which an innocent man was tried and convicted. When we meet the detective, his failure in the now twenty year-old murder continues to weigh heavily on him, so he really wants to solve the mystery of Adèle's  disappearance.  Manfred becomes a person of interest in the case as the last person who is known to have seen her. Although he claims he is innocent, paranoia begins to set in, and soon his carefully-ordered, carefully-controlled life tragically begins to unwind.

The book is not a crime story per se -- the disappearance of Adèle is the frame upon which rests an examination into the past and present of these two men, each in their own way outsiders, as well as a portrait of a small town where life has gone on virtually unchanged.  In the "Translator's Afterword," we also discover that the author has been having a bit of metafictional fun with his readers, with the claim that the novel was the work of Raymond Brunet, born in Saint-Louis, and that his life has some bearing on the character of Manfred Baumann. He goes on to inform us of the publication and film adaptation of the novel and other interesting points, but I'm not quite sure why the author felt the need to do this since the book certainly stands on its own.

The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau may not be the ideal book for readers looking for an action-packed thriller, but it's certainly a good choice  for those who enjoy an intense glimpse into the strangeness of the human psyche and the outside forces that can help to determine why people do what they do. Recommended.

fiction from Scotland
(all maps courtesy of Lonely Planet)

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

indie author moment: The Mountain Man's Dog and The Mountain Man's Bride, by Gary Corbin --the lighter side of crime

There comes a time, yes, even for me, when I have to back away from the darker side of crime fiction and pick up something light.  A steady diet of bleak just doesn't cut it.   So every now and then I'll actually say yes when someone emails me about reading his/her book if it fits my need at a particular moment. In this case,  I've been uber-sick, got better, got sick again by being stupid and thinking I was wonder woman, and on top of everything physical, I've basically been in a mental funk for the last two months.  We won't go there, but the point is that I've  needed a serious break for a long time.  The other problem is that aside from the novel by Camilleri I just finished, I don't think I even own anything on the lighter side. So when Oregon author Gary Corbin asked me if I'd read his book, I had no hesitation in saying yes.  Then I realized it was book two in his series, so I picked up book one since reading books in series order may be the one and only thing I'm actually OCD about. I read the first one on Kindle, but for non-Kindle people, it's available in all formats.  The books are published by Double Diamond Publishing.  He also has another novel out right now called Lying in Judgment, billed as a legal thriller. 

First up - The Mountain Man's Dog, which takes place in the very small Cascade Mountain town of Clarkesville, Oregon, 

where main character Lehigh Carter manages his family's woodland acreage along with that of other customers.  As the story begins, Carter is  in his trusty pickup truck with the intention of heading to the grocery store when he is stopped by a dog limping its way across the road.  He isn't a fan of dogs, but he picks it up and takes it to the Clarkesville Animal Hospital where he runs into an old girlfriend, Stacy McBride.  Stacy just happens to be the daughter of State Senator McBride, currently running for Governor.  Up until a few weeks earlier, she'd been seeing her father's campaign treasurer Paul Van Paten, who has it in his head that he and Stacy should be engaged. She, however, has other plans, and they don't involve him. Paul and the McBrides have a long history together, and he's banking on being a part of this prominent family when the Senator wins the governorship and then runs for president, so he doesn't take the news well when Stacy rejects him in favor of Lehigh.  He puts pressure on Stacy, but for Lehigh, well, let's just say that after some money is accidentally delivered into Carter's hands, Van Paten makes sure that Lehigh knows it's now all-out war between them.

Double Diamond Publishing, 2017
253 pp
paperback -- my copy from the author. Thanks so much!!!

Moving onto book two, The Mountain Man's Bride, we pick up the story not too far in time from the action in the first book.  Lehigh and Stacy are now happily engaged and looking forward to tying the knot.  Everything seems to be on track for returning to normal, and Lehigh is trying to get his life back in order following events from The Mountain Man's Dog.  Things are moving slowly but steadily for the two when their happiness suddenly gets put on hold -- it seems that acting Sheriff Jared Barkley has been killed and it looks as though the police think Stacy is responsible.  But they're not ready to let Lehigh off the hook just yet --  even though he has an alibi, there are a few people who want the crime to be pinned on him, and who will do anything to make sure that he ends up behind bars.  Lehigh, however, has other ideas, and starts his own investigation to clear both of their names.  Unfortunately, what he learns in the process has him beginning to doubt his fiancée -- and not just where murder is concerned.  

Let me get my niggles out of the way first.   I had to wonder why people speak like they're from the deep South in these books when they're in Oregon -- seriously,  it caused me major moments of cognitive dissonance in my head and was hard to get past. And this is just a me thing, but I'm just not a huge fan of sweet romance in my crime, but by now anyone who has taken a moment here and there to read what I post already knows that. But as I said, that's on me -- there are certainly plenty of readers who love it. On the positive side, while there is a murder in book two, and while both books do have their fair share of violence, we're thankfully spared the more gory details as the author chooses to focus instead on his characters and on the main issues at the heart of both, political corruption and the abuse of power.  There is nothing over the top to be found in either book, making for a sort of carefree, non-stress, light reading experience even as the tension grew and as I was left wondering how Stacy and Lehigh were going to get out of their respective predicaments, especially in Mountain Man's Dog.   So for me, in that sense, I enjoyed both and they were exactly what I needed -- two good old-fashioned, lighter-side mysteries that I could just relax and have fun with.  

While definitely not my norm, sometimes light is good for me, and I need to remember that and read more of it from time to time.  If I laugh that's also a plus, and that's what happened with these books since there is also a bit of comedy in each.   Of the two, I liked The Mountain Man's Dog a bit more than The Mountain Man's Bride, since it was a bit more suspenseful all around and because it offers a glimpse at what happens when less-than-scrupulous campaign staff let ambition and power take the wheel, and even there Mr. Corbin makes his point without having to get too down-and-dirty hardcore about it.   Those readers who normally enjoy crime light will be happy with these books.  One more thing -- I especially appreciate that the author didn't feel compelled to join the ranks of those writers who use torture, graphic sexual violence against women, and hardcore violence in general to sell their books.  Applause, and thanks!  

Saturday, February 25, 2017

A Voice in the Night, by Andrea Camilleri

Penguin, 2016
originally published as Una voce di notte, 2012
translated by Stephen Sartarelli
274 pp


I don't think I've ever kept up with a crime fiction/mystery series for as long as I have with this one, but A Voice in the Night is the 20th (!) installment in Camilleri's series featuring Salvo Montalbano. To say that I love this series is an understatement -- it's light but not too light, funny,  and yet at the same time, Camilleri never fails to draw attention to some aspect of political or social issues in his own country.  More importantly, though, Montalbano and his cohorts are like old friends at this point; they are people I enjoy revisiting every now and then. I don't think that there is another crime fiction series out there (and I've read TONS) that has given me so much pleasure, which is another reason that I love these books.

There are two cases at work here, both of which have the dubious distinction of setting Montalbano (and his superiors) between the proverbial rock and a hard place.  First, there is what seems to be an ordinary supermarket robbery, which turns out to be anything but ordinary.  Second, a young man who a) turns out to be the son of the provincial president,  and b) pushes Montalbano's road-rage buttons by driving erratically turns up again to report the murder of his girlfriend.  Both cases have to be handled with kid gloves and Montalbano has to come up with some clever workarounds to ensure that justice is served. Around the action, once again we find Salvo in his own head, musing about old age (the book starts on his 58th birthday), politics, the media, and lack of respect for the elderly among other things.

For me to stick with a series for so long is unheard of -- what I've discovered over the years is that some authors would be better served letting their series run take a rest.  As someone once told me when I was very upset with the end of the excellent Wallander series, sometimes it's better to go out gracefully and leave your readers with good memories rather than to drag something out forever and get stale.  After 20 books I can honestly say that I don't see how Montalbano and his motley crew can go down that second road --  I have so much fun with Montalbano that I've already pre-ordered the next one (due out in August), A Nest of Vipers. As long as Camilleri's novels continue to be published, I'll continue to read them.

crime fiction from Italy

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Six Four, by Hideo Yokoyama

riverrun books, 2017
translated by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies
643 pp


Let's just get this out of the way -- Six Four is not an average thriller, nor is it an average police procedural; there are no kick-ass heroines or scenes of over-the-top violence to be found anywhere in this book.  I finished it in one go in a major overnight, insomnia-fueled reading session and my reaction was this: hooray (!) for something new, something delightfully different, and above all, for an intelligent mystery novel that goes well beyond the standard crime fiction fare -- in short, the sort of thing I crave but don't find much in modern mysteries and crime these days.

Set in 2002, Six Four is the story of Mikami, the director of Media Relations in the police department in D Prefecture.  He used to work as a detective and was on the team investigating the kidnapping and later the death of Shoko, a little girl back in 1989.   Mikami understands the devastation of the loss of a child, since his own daughter Ayumi simply disappeared one day and aside from a few silent phone calls which Mikami's wife swears must have been their daughter calling just to hear their voices, has neither been seen nor heard of since.   The 1989 case was never solved, and from that time on, it has been referred to as "Six Four" because it took place in the Showa year 64.  It was also billed as the "Prefectural HQ's greatest failure," and there is only one year left before the statute of limitations runs out for this particular crime.

Back in D Prefecture, Mikami gets a surprise when he is ordered to go to visit the family of the Six Four kidnapping victim, to let them know that the police commissioner would like to meet with them on the crime's anniversary day and
"make an appeal, inside and outside the force, and to give a boost to the officers still investigating the case, to reinforce our intention never to let violent crime go unpunished."
The real purpose, Mikami's boss tells him, behind the commissioner's appeal is to "reach an internal audience" rather than "the general public." Immediately Mikami realizes that this is all about "politics" more than anything else.

Mikami decides to familiarize himself with the case files, and while going through them sees something odd.  His questions are met with silence in some cases, warnings to back off  in others, fueling his quest to dig further.  But as he is busy trying to find answers, big things are happening at  the prefectural HQ that force Mikami to examine his own relationship between himself and the people he works for, as well as his own personal feelings about the crime itself.

That's the basic plot in a brief nutshell, and makes for an excellent mystery, but  there's much, much more going on here.  First, the book tackles the issue of the relationship between the press and the police, which in my opinion is one of the best parts of this novel.  Second, it takes a look at the Japanese police force itself, as Mikami finds himself having to try to navigate through,  as author David Peace notes in the interview with Yokoyama at the end of the book (and do yourself a favor and save it for dead last),  "their political machinations and rivalries, internal, local and national...", dealing with ambition and the drive for power on the parts of some individuals.   And finally, it looks at the human costs of crime from the points of view of both the victims and the police.

I've seen so many not-so-positive reviews of this book -- mostly by readers who were disappointed that it was less of a thriller than an insight into everything I've just mentioned above. Well, to each his/her own as I'm fond of saying.    People looking for garden-variety thrillers or crime fiction should probably think twice about reading this one -- thrillers are a dime a dozen these days; books like this one are rarities and should be celebrated.


crime fiction from Japan