Thursday, July 29, 2010

Past Crimes Revealed: The Magnificent Spilsbury and the case of the Brides in the Bath, by Jane Robins

John Murray Publishers
292 pp.

As England was heading into and then in the opening years of World War I,  within the short space of three years, three women, all of whom had married George Joseph Smith (who used multiple aliases) drowned while taking a bath.  Each individual death had been legally attributed to natural causes after proper inquests, the doctors finding no evidence of foul play.  But early in 1915, Detective Inspector Arthur Neil from the Kentish Town police station was going through his workload and came across an official memo, attached to which were two newspaper cuttings.  The first was headlined as "Found Dead in Bath, Bride's Tragic Fate on Day After Wedding;" the second as "Bride's Sudden Death in Bath. Drowned After Seizure in a Hot Bath." It seems that the father of the now-dead Alice Burnham, who had married Smith in 1913 and died in the bath during  her Blackpool honeymoon, had seen a news article about Margaret Lofty, a young, newly-married woman who drowned in her bath in Highgate, and brought the similarities between the death of his daughter and Margaret to the attention of the Aylesbury police. They brought it to the attention of Scotland Yard, who sent it to Neil. As official investigations proceeded, and the story became public, another police department informed Neil of yet a third possibility, that of Bessie Mundy, who had also been found dead, again drowned during a bath.

Jane Robins recreates and analyzes the case, drawing from a multitude of modern and contemporary sources. One by one she takes the reader through the three victims lives, how they came to meet George William Smith, and why the women may have been drawn to him, considering that this man was such bad news. Interwoven with their stories, Robins sets the stage in terms of historical context, including contemporary social attitudes and psychology, current events, the current state of police procedure, and traces the science of forensic pathology, which was still in its early stages as a tool for crime solving.  She introduces her readers to Dr. Bernard Spilsbury, a forensic pathologist whose work on the Hawley Crippen case of 1910 helped to send Crippen to the gallows after his return from his interrupted escape to Canada. Spilsbury returns to the stand again as a prosecution witness, with his professional theories about what happened in the cases of the Brides in the Bath. As in the Crippen case, his opinions also led the jury to a verdict of guilty and to a death sentence for Smith.  But  was Spilsbury's opinion accurate?  Was it indeed reflective of what had actually happened to these women? Would his evidence hold up in a modern court of law?

The Magnificent Spilsbury is a pleasure to read, both in terms of the period and because of my absolute fascination with historical true crime. It's quite obvious that Robins did a great deal of research, poring over old trial records, letters, documents, police records as well as examining relevant modern sources. Her constant interweaving of contemporary events and writings allows her to analyze her findings, rather than just setting them all down in a purely factual manner, always asking questions and putting forth a great deal of effort to answer them.  She's also able to bring the case and the principals involved to life through her writing, especially Smith and the women he victimized.

I only have a minor issue with this book. At times there may have been a bit too much period detail. One example: the three pages of treatise about the history and use of zeppelins that proved to be a bit distracting, causing me to want to skim and move along to get back to the story at hand. There were a few spots like this where she could have made her point and then moved on, but chose instead to prolong the discussion.  But overall it's a good book and one I would definitely recommend.

As an aside, if you are interested, I found an article about Spilsbury here.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Death in Breslau, by Marek Krajewski

MacLehose Press/Quercus
original Polish Title: Śmierć w Breslau, 2006
translated by Danusia Stok
247 pages

First in a series of four novels,  Death in Breslau might just possibly be my favorite crime fiction novel so far this year. I hadn't even finished this book and bought the next two,  The End of the World in Breslau and The Phantoms of Breslau. If the cover doesn't grab you, the story will.

The story begins in 1950 in a Dresden psychiatric hospital, where the director is being pressed by a Stasi  official who wants to question the patient named Herbert Anwaldt. Herbert Anwaldt's identity and the reason he is a patient are questions the author answers as the book moves back and forward in time, beginning in 1933 in Breslau (now Wrocław).  The main character of this novel (and the four that follow) is Counsellor Eberhard Mock, who in 1933 was the Deputy Head of the Criminal Department of the Police Praesidium. That year, Hermann Göring had taken over the posts of Minister of Internal Affairs and Chief of the Prussian police.  The Nazis had become very active in the Police Praesidium, and an entire wing of the building had been taken over by the Gestapo.  

Mock is summoned to a side track of the main railway station, where he finds the bodies of Marietta von der Malten and her governess in a saloon car, savagely raped and murdered.  Clues left behind include some dead scorpions, some live ones, and some cryptic writing in blood on the wall of the train car.  Mock knows the dead girl and  her father, the Baron, a fellow Mason and someone to whom he owes a great deal. His investigation leads him to Friedländer, a Jewish importer specializing in strange "vermin," which makes the Nazi anti-Jewish propagandists very happy.  It also solves some of Mock's political problems, and the arrest leads to Mock's promotion as Criminal Director.  But it's not the end of the story -- after Friedländer "commits suicide", the Baron receives a package containing some clothing that had belonged to his daughter and realizes that the real killer is still out there somewhere.  Herbert Anwaldt, an alcoholic policeman from Berlin, is summoned to work with Mock to secretly discover the identity of the real murderer. 

This book is as dark as dark gets. Spies are everywhere, Mock has enemies that would like to bring him down, the Gestapo is a force to be reckoned with. The sinister atmosphere does not let up for a moment. The characters are well developed, especially Mock, who although married, spends his Friday evenings at a brothel playing chess with two lovely women (one under the table, one at the table) who know that "every successful move was assigned a specific erotic configuration." He is quite adept at playing the game with the Nazis, and becomes a master of the art of self protection, both physically and politically. There are many other characters who indulge in hedonistic delights, and there are the Nazis, and nearly everyone seems to have secrets that they'll do anything to keep hidden. And if ever a book captured a place and a time, it's this one. 

Death in Breslau is stunning, a novel you won't forget any time soon after reading.  While it's great fun, it's also claustrophobic sometimes as you sink deeper and deeper into the world of the dark and sybaritic side of Breslau and its inhabitants. It's also an excellent look at the politics and changing Europe of the 1930s.  I absolutely loved this book and very highly recommend it to readers who want something truly edgy and way off the beaten path in their crime fiction. 

fiction from Poland

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Franchise Affair, by Josephine Tey

Scribner Paperback Fiction/Simon and Schuster
300 pp
originally published 1949

Although this is listed as the third book in Tey's Alan Grant series, here he plays more of a background role rather than the main character.  That honor goes to
Robert Blair, a typical small-town English solicitor in the quiet village of Milford. His old and established legal firm, Blair, Hayward and Bennet, handles matters of "wills, conveyancing and investments." But with one desperate telephone call, Blair is thrust into a most bizarre case which takes him to a house called The Franchise.

Upon his arrival, he is met by Marion Sharpe and her mother, the owners of the house, along with Inspector Grant of Scotland Yard.  Grant is there investigating the story of Betty Kane, a demure young schoolgirl who claims that she had been kidnapped by the Sharpes one day after missing a bus and held prisoner in an attic room, where she was beaten when she refused to perform household duties.  According to Kane, Mrs. Sharpe left the door unlocked one night, and Betty was able to make her escape.  She was able to describe the inside of the house to a tee, down to the different types of suitcases in a closet, as well as the distinctive features of their car.  But the problem is that both Marion and her mother swear that they've never set eyes on the girl, and they're absolutely baffled as to her knowledge of the house. Blair is positive that the women are innocent, and despite some misgivings, agrees to help, despite the insurmountable odds against success.   And so it begins.

Tey's characters are believable, the plot is engrossing, but what makes this novel work well is how she successfully plunges her readers immediately not only into the crime, but into the mounting tension surrounding the case up until the end. And although The Franchise Affair is set in the countryside, it is a sophisticated story, not just another English country house-based mystery.

Although written in 1949, Franchise Affair is still a very good read, with some clearly recognizable elements (such as the power of the tabloids to fuel the fires of those who read them), and a completely different storyline than most of her earlier novels and of the novels of that period. Tey based this novel on a true crime of the 18th century focusing on another young girl, Elizabeth Canning.  If you're at all interested, there are two fictional accounts of this 18th-century story that I'm aware of:  Elizabeth is Missing, by Lillian de la Torre and The Canning Wonder, by Arthur Machen.

 For aficionados of classic mysteries, The Franchise Affair is definitely recommended. The end is a little sappy, but you won't care because the case is so satisfying.

fiction from England

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

August Heat, by Andrea Camilleri

Penguin, 2009
Original Italian title: La vampa del agosto, 2006
translated by Stephen Sartarelli
278 pp.

I had not intended to skip from Camilleri's Shape of Water  (#1 in the Montalbano series) all the way to this one (#10), but the fact that August Heat is one of the  CWA International Dagger finalists inspired me to leave 2-9 for later. As it turns out, I didn't need to have read books 2-9 to be able to enjoy this one.

Without going too much into plot so as not to wreck the book, this particular summer is extremely hot in Sicily, and Inspector Salvo Montalbano is having a great deal of difficulty dealing with the heat.  At the request of his girlfriend Livia, Montalbano has rented a seaside home for her friends Laura, Guido & their 3 year-old son. After they move in for the season, strange things begin to happen, culminating in the disappearance of the little boy.  The search for the boy (whom he finds)  also yields the discovery of the dead body of a teenage girl in an old trunk. Since the family and Livia are finally in a great mood again, ready to start their vacation in earnest, he hides the discovery of the body until the next day. When he finally breaks it to them, they take off, and Livia goes with them, extremely angry at Salvo, refusing to talk to him whenever he phones.  Be that as it may, Montalbano still has to figure out who the girl is and who killed her -- and his investigation ends up not only being about this dead girl, but also spreads out  to include the death of a construction worker, while at the same time eventually sending the inspector down a very treacherous path that he should definitely be avoiding.

Although there are plenty of opportunities for laughs in this novel, the story gradually shifts to something much more serious. At first the mood is lighthearted -- the family's troubles with the house, the banter between Salvo and his fellow policemen, the accepted local politics and patronization,  the beauty of the seaside and of course, the delightful food scattered throughout. And Camilleri even finds a minute to make a sideways comment to readers who
 did not deign to read mystery novels, because in their opinion, they were only entertaining puzzles
while Montalbano is reading a book by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, who, he notes, fill their pages with attacks on social democracy and government (113).

But the easygoing mood that Camilleri sets up at the start eventually fades into a more somber tone as the heat, Livia's absence and the frustrations brought out by the case all begin to take their toll on Montalbano. 

August Heat is very well written, with a much fuller style than is present in Shape of Water, which tells me that I have something great to look forward to in books 2-9.  The setting is excellent -- so well done that you can almost feel the heat coming through the pages and the feeling of relief each time Salvo dives into the sea to cool off.  While the plot is a good one, my only niggling issue with this novel is that once events started rolling toward the end, they picked up speed at an incredibly fast pace, leaving me scratching my head as to why the author was in such a rush to finish so quickly. But -- it's definitely worth your time to sit down and read this book.

fiction from Italy

Monday, July 19, 2010

Third Girl, by Agatha Christie

HarperCollins, 2002
originally published 1966
Hercule Poirot is now in his 35th adventure; after this one, he has only three more contemporary appearances -- in Hallow'een Party, Elephants Can Remember, and Curtain.

Third Girl is set smack in the mid-sixties.  It's a time when men are wearing such clothes as  "elaborate velvet waistcoat[s], skin-tight pants," and wearing their hair long in "rich curls of chestnut," while women were wearing
the clothes of their generation: black high leather boots, white open-work stockings of doubtful cleanliness, a skimpy skirt and a long and sloppy pullover of heavy wool.
The Beatles proclaim in 1966 that they're more popular than Jesus. The younger generation is experimenting with drugs and getting high. Girls aren't staying at home much after leaving school, going off to the cities to find jobs and live in apartments, often doubling up or adding a "third" girl to help with the rent.  It is just such a "third girl," Norma Restarick, who early one morning finds herself with Hercule Poirot, to tell him that she might have committed a murder, but then proclaims Poirot too old, and disappears. He's obviously intrigued, and finds out the girl's identity only when Ariadne Oliver, the mystery novelist, begins discussing a party she'd been to earlier where she'd met this young woman. From that point, the two begin investigating Norma's past and present, trying to discover if she's unbalanced, or if there's someone that might mean her harm. Poirot looks for patterns & death, and Ariadne tries methods that her detective, Sven Hjerson, might use in her popular mystery books.

As usual, there are plenty of suspects and red herrings throughout the novel, and this time Christie puts a secret up her sleeve that she doesn't reveal until the end -- a bit of duplicity on her part which wasn't really fair, but worked.  I thought the final solution was well done and although the clues were there all along, I still managed to be surprised by the ending,  which a) I felt was quite satisfying and b) I should have figured out after the breadcrumb trail of clues Christie left behind. And while the story may seem a bit muddled from time to time, it's still well worth the read. 

Poirot, without a doubt, is one of my favorite detectives ever, with his fastidious mannerisms and personality.  Even toward the end of his career his little grey cells are as busy and sharp as ever; Miss Lemon,  the secretary par excellence,  makes an appearance, always a step ahead of Poirot, and then there's Ariadne Oliver, a rather unique character, often living off of her intuition or using her mystery novelist skills to offer help in Poirot's investigation.  While she does provide some comic relief and comes off as a bit of a bumbler from time to time, she actually manages to also provide a few valuable clues to Poirot from time to time. 
At first I was a bit unsure as to whether or not I would enjoy this novel, but it ended up being a treat. This must be one that either I read eons ago and have totally forgotten, or that somehow I managed to miss until now. I can recommend it, definitely, BUT ... if you're looking for the recently televised Third Girl, you'll find that there's quite a difference between page and screen.

fiction from England

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Badfellas, by Tonino Benacquista

Bitter Lemon Press
Original French title: Malavita, 2004
Translated by Emily Read

Cholong-sur-Avre in Normandy is the setting of this rather unconventional and darkly humorous tale.  The Blake family moves into an old Norman brick-and-stone villa during the middle of the night. They had already lived  in France for six years, first in Paris, then on the Cote D'Azur in Cagnes-sur-Mer. There's Fred, the head of the clan, Maggie his wife, and two teenagers, Belle and Warren.  Just your typical American family relocating to the French countryside, right? Wrong. Fred is actually Mafioso Giovanni Manzoni from New Jersey, and he and his family are in the witness protection program after he testifies against against another crime boss, Mimino.  Along with them are a team of FBI men, assigned to them for protection against anyone wanting to claim the huge bounty put on Manzoni's head by Mimino. All of they have to do is lay low, pretend to be a normal family and get on with their lives.  But for someone like Fred, or for the rest of the family for that matter, being normal in any sense of the word is impossible.

Benaquista's characters are well drawn. In this particular witness protection incarnation, Fred has decided to tout himself as an author writing about the landing at Normandy, while all the time writing his own memoirs about his life in organized crime.  Fred is not a likable person at all and has no redeeming qualities, but he does have principles:  he always takes responsibility for his actions, he wouldn't do anything different over his lifetime if he had it all to do again, and the word he hates most in the world is sorry. Maggie is busy with volunteer work, but hangs out with the FBI team to get the latest on her neighbors, who are under constant surveillance by the feds. Belle, the daughter, is one of those people who makes lemonade with the lemons life has handed her, and Warren has handled the witness protection situation by watching, learning and becoming the mini Godfather-figure of his school.

There are some truly funny moments in this book, especially the story of how a school magazine traveled from France to Thailand to Los Angeles to New York and started a particularly nasty chain of events. That whole little story within a story is laugh-out-loud funny. There's also a great scene where by mistake a local cinema club gets sent the Scorsese film Goodfellas instead of the scheduled program of Some Came Running, the story of a WWII veteran who returns home.  However, As much as I liked this book, I did have a couple of niggling and minor issues with it. First, I kept waiting for the "crime fiction" part to begin, but it never materialized. I might have labeled it more of a "dark comedy" -- there's no central mystery plotline, very little crime and it's really more of a look at the lives and fortunes of this Witness-Protected family while in exile and at times the people guarding them.  And this leads me to my second point: when a plumber meets up with an unfortunate incident at the Blake home, how is it that the FBI surveillance team overseeing the Blake family's every move knows nothing about it? And how is that Fred's nephew in the US is allowed to get a call from France when the family is virtually in lockdown?  There are a couple of places like this where the storyline falters a bit, creating distractions that really annoyed me at times.

If you're looking for a typical crime fiction novel, I wouldn't start with this one, but the book is actually quite good overall -- more of a fun read than a serious crime read. It has been nominated for this year's International Dagger Award, and at the award's website, the judges have noted that "Crime fiction that makes you chuckle is rare and this is an exceptional example of the species." There's enough satire here to satisfy anyone's  snarky and sardonic side, a bit of underworld darkness, and I would most definitely recommend it.  And finally, as one cover blurb notes:
Benaquista's story explores what would happen if, say, the Soprano family were to move to Normandy...
and I'd say that's about hit the nail on the head.

I do hope his other books are a bit more crime oriented, however, because I've got a stack of them sitting here waiting to be read.

 crime fiction from France

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo revisited: the facebook connection


I just finished watching Girl With the Dragon Tattoo today, and while looking around the internet for reviews of the movie, I came across a link for Lisbeth Salander's page at Facebook. I'm not kidding.  And she has 1,430 friends.  Considering she's not even real, that's a lot! Even more than my daughter, who has as astronomical amount of facebook buds. So I started combing through the Lisbeth Salander wall for anything remotely interesting.  Here's a fraction of what I found:

Someone picked out a new outfit for her and posted it at Mall World (another facebook app). 
Another person wrote (and I quote):

Liseth, I finished the book and I will miss you and the last book couldn't have been meant to be the final chapter. No one could ever finish it and hope no one tries. But I couldn't put it sad that I will never read about you again.

 Lots of people sent her birthday wishes, with a few of them sending her the little facebook birthday cake gifts. Someone sent her an "i-heart".

Someone invited her to take the "which superhero are you" quiz.

etc. etc. et cetera.

So, out of curiosity, I did a search to see whether or not Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot had a page of their very own, and I looked for Kurt Wallander as well.  All of those are listed as "community" pages, where people can write in and discuss the books, movies, whatever. Nowhere in any of those did I find people sending birthday cakes or telling Jane, Hercule or Kurt that they loved them.

Okay, okay. I'm sure that the Lisbeth Salander page was put up by someone at Knopf but still. Who writes to a fictional character? 

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Caribbean Mystery, by Agatha Christie

Originally published 1964
224 pp.

"Like to see the picture of a murderer?"

Major Palgrave was the man with a million stories, and everyone vacationing at the lovely Golden Palm Hotel on the Caribbean island of St. Honoré tried to avoid him like the plague. Once he got started, he never stopped. His latest victim, so to speak, was Jane Marple, who had come to the Golden Palm to recuperate after a serious bout of pneumonia. Knitting bag in hand, Miss Marple was sitting, half listening and making polite replies once in a while, until Major Palgrave started speaking about her favorite topic: murder.  He begins to tell her a rather unusual story about a man who got away with murder more than once, and when Palgrave asks her if she wanted to see a picture of a murderer, the knitting stops and she's all eyes and ears.  But after he fishes through his wallet for the photo, he suddenly stops and changes the subject rather abruptly and rather loudly. Taken aback, Miss Marple looks up to see why and sees several people nearby.  Although curious, she goes right back to her knitting. The next day, when one of the maids finds Major Palgrave dead in his room, apparently from natural causes, Miss Marple can't help but wonder if all is as it seems.  When she creates a clever story to retrieve the photograph Palgrave was about to show her, it's gone, and now she's interested.

Miss Marple is the perfect detective. When people look at her they see "all knitting wool and tittle-tattle," and she becomes more or less invisible that way, easily dismissed by most of the players. But one man, wealthy businessman Jason Rafiel, sees right through her. And since Jane is not in St. Mary Mead at the moment, with no help from the likes of Sir Henry Clithering, it is Rafiel to whom she turns in hopes of preventing more death.

 A Caribbean Mystery is lighter in tone than some of her other Marple mysteries, slowly paced and there are spots where my interest definitely flagged.  The mystery plotline was good, although a bit predictable. The ocean, the sand, the palms and the steel band music definitely brought the Caribbean to mind while reading, since I've been there a number of times.   And although this isn't one of my favorites in the Marple series, I couldn't help but enjoy watching her brain at work.

My advice to potential Christie readers: put this one somewhere in the middle of your reading schedule and start with some of the other Marple stories.  

as an aside:
This book has been adapted for television twice:
1) with Joan Hickson as Miss Marple
2) with Helen Hayes as Miss Marple

fiction from England

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Darkest Room, by Johan Theorin

Delta/Random House, 2009
Original Swedish title: Nattfåk, 2008
438 pp.
translated by Marlaine Delargy

Joakim and Katrine Westin, along with their two small children, have decided to leave Stockholm to buy and renovate an old manor house at Eel Point on the island of Öland.  Along with its two lighthouses, this area has a long history of shipwrecks and drownings, and it is said that the voices of the dead can still be heard. But for Joakim and Katrine, Eel Point offers a new beginning. For their children there are meadows and forests to play in, a definite change from urban life in Stockholm. But after only a couple of months, the idyllic setting becomes a place of dread after a terrible tragedy, which leaves Joakim shaken and inconsolable, unable to deal with his grief.  He begins to become more interested in Eel Point's haunted history, wondering indeed if the dead inhabit the area, and the house begins to act on his damaged soul. He meets Tilda Davidsson, a newly-recruited police officer who has moved to the area to escape from the gossip involved with her affair with a married policeman, and because she has family there.  Tilda's great-uncle is Gerlof Davidsson, who was a major character in Theorin's first novel, Echoes From the Dead, and she spends a lot of time with him, putting his memories of his life on Öland down on tape.

But there's more. As the Westin family is coping with its grief, the two Serelius brothers and their cohort in crime Henrik Jansson are busy breaking into vacation homes where the owners are away, stealing valuables and causing general mayhem. It's not long until their forays escalate and they start breaking into occupied houses and becoming violent, hopped up on meth before each job. Their activities have been reported to the police, but it isn't until Gerlof suggests to Tilda that she talk to a few of his old friends that anything really happens with the case.

These two plotlines, along with Gerlof's oral history of his family and of life on Öland, also combined with excerpts from a book written by Katrine's mother Mirja Rambe, all weave together into a perfectly-crafted thriller with a slight hint of gothic thrown into the mix.  The sense of place is unbelievably eerie and helps to keep the tension and suspense from ebbing at any point in the story. The characters are meticulously and well constructed, especially in the cases of Katrine and Joakim, whose lives Theorin discloses in only small bits and pieces at a time. The pacing of the novel is just a little slow to begin with, but when it picks up, there is no way anyone can possibly put this book down until it's over.

I have to admit to being put off at first by the hint of the supernatural that figures into the story, but as all came to be revealed, my worries were put to rest and Theorin didn't let me down. It is tough to label The Darkest Room as simply a mystery or a novel of crime fiction, because it's also an examination of loss, grief and human nature in its most vulnerable and exposed state. And as in his earlier Echoes of the Dead, Theorin has created a story in which the past has meaning for and acts on the present -- one of my favorite types of novels. I highly recommend this one and considering I read it in 90+ degree heat with a near equal level of humidity, it made me shiver throughout.  The Darkest Room is simply stellar.

fiction from Sweden

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Master Key, by Masako Togawa

King Penguin, 1985
Original Japanese Title: Oi Naru Genei, 1962
translated by Simon Grove

An oldie but still a goodie, The Master Key begins with a highly-publicized architectural experiment: engineers are about to move an entire five-story building to make way for widening an existing road. The engineers have assured the women who live there that they can remain in their apartments for the move, and that they won't notice a thing.  They've even convinced the inhabitants of the building that they should all fill a glass with water and watch it ... they won't even see a ripple.  And as the story opens, that is what many of the women are doing. Then -- three flashbacks: an accident involving a man wearing women's clothing, the burial of a child's body in the building's basement, and the tale of the kidnapping of the young son of an American army officer stationed in Japan. 

The K Apartments for Ladies is not only a residence, but is also the world which these women occupy.  It is a place where, according to one woman,  a person can imagine that
 old women pass their days in silence still gazing at the broken fragments of the dreams of their youth, every now and then letting fall a sigh that echoes down the corridor, until they combine on the stairway and roll down to the cavernous hallway, raising one long moan...
Ironically, the original purpose of the building was to serve as a place where "Japanese women could emancipate themselves," where single young ladies could live alone.  Fifty years earlier, when the building was constructed, that was almost unheard of, and people would often look at it with "envious curiosity."  However, now the residents are growing old, living with the "bright days of their pasts," now passing their time largely in a lonely existence of solitude and withdrawal. Rather than being free, women are now stuck there, with nowhere else to go, keeping parts of their past lives away from the prying eyes of others.  And in the face of a changing outside world, many live there in order to continue old traditions.  Now, with the theft of the building's master key,  the safety of their world has been violated.  Someone has access to things the residents would rather keep buried. In the midst of this world of secrets and solitude, there is one person who has no qualms about prying into the proverbial skeletons in the closets.  The looming threat of deadly gossip would be, in some cases, too much to bear. Along with the moving of the building, the theft of the master key threatens to bring about that "one chance in a hundred" of the collapse of the world which these women inhabit, by making public the things they have kept hidden for a good portion of their lives.

The question of who took the key and why is only part of this story. Secrets upon secrets are revealed as the author delves into the lives of  a few of these women to produce a novel that starts out on a high note of tension and stays that way up until the very end. But The Master Key is not only a mystery novel; it also offers a psychological portrait of aging women dealing with their pasts and the loneliness of their present situations.

The story is told from several different points of view so the novel may be a bit confusing at times. The characters and their hidden lives are what drive this book, but I found myself having to go back a few times to remember who was who and pick up the threads of their individual narratives.  While that was a bit distracting, the sleight-of-hand twist at the end made it all worthwhile, as did the sense of place that came alive in the very atmosphere of this stifling and gloomy apartment world in which these ladies live.  And although it was written in 1962 and may seem a bit dated, the suspenseful tone that starts at the beginning does not let up until the end.

fiction from Japan

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Chalk Circle Man, by Fred Vargas

Penguin Books, 2009
Originally published as L'Homme aux Cercles Bleus, 1996
247 pp.
translated by Siàn Reynolds

 While his crew of co-workers are trying to figure him out, the new commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg settles into his job in the Paris police force in the 5th arrondissement. Adamsberg started his police career in the "stony foothills of the Pyrenees," where another inspector told him that he wasn't "cut out" to be a policeman. But that was before he went on to solve several murders in the area, was promoted to inspector and then commissaire. When the job in Paris was offered to him, he grabbed it. Showing up to work with clothes in disarray, doodling all day, working largely on gut reaction and intuition, and moving very slowly, he didn't fit into what Adrien Danglard, one of his inspectors, considered to be the regular policeman mold.

This entire novel, like Adamsberg himself, is rather quirky, but the commissaire is just the tip of the iceberg.  There is an assortment of offbeat and unusual characters that populate this book (more later), as well as a rather peculiar set of crimes that occur, all beginning with someone who draws blue chalk circles throughout the city, leaving different articles in each one: one day it's paper clips, another day it's a lamb-chop bone, and yet another a swimming cap, etc. And around each circle is written the same phrase: "Victor, woe's in store, what are you out here for?"  The chalk circle phenomenon has become so widespread that the newspapers have a field day:

People will soon be jostling for the honour of finding a circle outside their door on the way to work in the morning. Whether the circles are the work of a cynical con artist or a genuine madman, if it's fame he's after the creator of the circles has certainly got what he wanted. Galling, isn't it, for people who've spent a lifetime trying to become famous? ... If he's ever tracked down, they'll have him on a TV chat show in no time (I can see it now: 'The cultural sensation of the fin-de-millenium'.  (23)
But Adamsberg senses that there's more, and orders Danglard to have a police photographer out in the street to photograph the circle that he feels will come that night. And Adamsberg's intuition serves him well, as the harmless chalk circles escalate into murder.

Besides Adamsberg, who while doing his job is always thinking about his lost petite cherie Camille, a woman with a pet marmoset named Richard III, the author has created some other rather off-the-wall characters. Mathilde Forestier is a famous oceanographer whose hobby is following people around the city. Living with Mathilde is Clémence Valmont, her seventy-something year-old assistant, whose teeth remind Mathilde of those of crocidura russula, and to whom she often refers as "shrew mouse." Clémence spends her evenings combing the personals, looking for romance, and going out on pointless dates. There's also Charles Reyer, blinded when he was dissecting a lioness to study its locomotive system, and was squirted in the eye with rotten flesh. (Seriously -- I couldn't make up this stuff if I tried.) And finally, there's Adamsberg's colleague, Danglard, whose wife left him with two sets of twins and a child from a love affair.  He's a good cop, but he also has a sense of compassion that doesn't stop, to the point where he worries about the sun dying in five billion years.  Danglard, who has a bit too much to drink now and then, often holds "case conferences" with his kids, where he discusses police work and allows them their own voices in "theorizing" about the crimes.

Vargas allows her characters to develop their own approaches to understanding Adamsberg's nature, but in the end, it's Reyer, the blind man, who says it best:
He just gets on with his life, letting it all swill about, big ideas and little details, impressions and realities, thoughts and words. He combines the belief of a child with the philosophy of an old man. But he's real and he's dangerous. (103).
And indeed, the commissaire turns out to be both. 

When I read crime fiction or mystery novels, I'm not so much interested in the "who" but rather the "why," as my primary interest is in that well-worn cliché about the evil that lurks in men's souls. I look for motivations and underpinnings in the criminal's psyche in determining the why.   I'm a puzzle solver and this type of fiction (if written well) appeals to that part of me. I also examine how the crime is solved. And then I decide whether or not an author has fulfilled my expectations in those categories. I must say that Vargas sends all of that flying right out of the window -- she has written a very unusual novel with a highly eccentric cast of characters that are so odd that in a rather bizarre sort of way, they become very real. A conventional mystery/crime fiction novel takes you on a path in which certain things are expected to happen, and as a reader, that's what you look for, and then you're mildly surprised with whatever plot twist may happen to get thrown in toward the end.  But Adamsberg and company are anything but conventional.   The author lulls you into thinking along the lines of  "it's this person, no, it's that person, but wait, that's also possible," and eventually it's "who can I trust in all of this?" But as you get into the possibilities of it all, Vargas comes up with an ending that hits you like the proverbial ton of bricks. And I liked it.

  The Chalk Circle Man was well written. There's no real sense of a guiding road map anywhere and the characters are so eccentric that they appealed to my sensitivity to the quirky side of life. While it may be a bit frustrating for most readers of general crime fiction with all of the philosophical outpourings from time to time,  it's good.  There is just nothing conventional about this book, and I think that's part of it its appeal. Most highly recommended.

fiction from France

Sunday, July 4, 2010

A week not to miss on PBS Masterpiece for Agatha Christie fans

David Suchet is back on PBS this week, first as himself, guiding viewers on a journey aboard the Orient Express:

according to the blurb at the PBS Masterpiece Website,
From London, Suchet travels to Calais in northern France to board the Venice Simplon Orient Express, and begins his 2,000-mile journey through six countries, with a breathtaking stop in Venice on the way to Prague. The delightful Suchet revels in the artistry and beauty of the train, and explores its attraction for Agatha Christie, who used it as the setting for one of her most recognized novels. With the incisive inquisitiveness of Poirot, Suchet also traces the history of the Orient Express from its elegant beginnings to its tumultuous final days, and how its legacy has lived on. Come aboard for a charming and insightful view of the timeless Orient Express. 
To further entice you, there's a preview of Suchet's journey available at the website. 

And then on Sunday, July 11th, he returns as the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot as Poirot: Series X begins on Masterpiece Mystery, first with Murder on the Orient Express,  followed later in the season by Third Girl and Appointment With Death.

David Suchet does such a wonderful job as Poirot that I can't even read the books without having him in my head. This would be a great week to settle in and catch him in action. 

The Shape of Water, by Andrea Camilleri

Penguin Books, 2005
Originally published as La Forma Dell'acqua, 1994
218 pp.
translated by Stephen Sartarelli

Just past the midway point of this novel, the mother of the victim, local "big-shot" Silvio Lupanello, implores Inspector Salvo Montalbano to uncover what really happened to her son. Lupanello was found dead, pants down around his ankles, in a car in a local area of Vigàta (Sicily) used by prostitutes and drug dealers.  Although the coroner has judged that Silvio died of natural causes, his mother knows that something more sinister lies at the bottom of Silvio's death, even if he truly died of a heart attack. She tells him a story about when she was a little girl, and her friend once put water into things like bowls, teapots, cups, and a square milk carton, trying to establish its shape.  When asked "what shape is water," she replied
Water doesn't have any shape!...It takes the shape you give it.
She asks Montalbano to discover what really was behind Silvio's death -- the alternative, as she noted was to "stop at the shape they've given the water." Because of where her son had been found and because he'd been caught with his pants down, so to speak, Lupanello and his family name had been disgraced and his cronies were assured of never being part of local politics again.   But the inspector had already guessed there was more to the story, and despite pressures from higher-ups, he had prolonged the investigation, refusing to close the case.

Montalbano is an interesting character. He declares himself to be an honest man, but also understands that there's a certain way things work politically in Sicily and he rolls with it. He's funny and cynical, able to mix compassion for others with his duty as a cop. He's involved in a relationship that takes place mostly over the phone, yet doesn't stray with local women. He has a love of good food, which is described throughout the novel.  He also has an incredible sardonic wit and is not afraid to speak his mind. As a character, he definitely stands out in the world of fictional detectives, and he, rather than the crime he is working on, is the focal point of this novel.

Camilleri evokes a strong sense of place here, there are rarely any distractions which get in the way of either the main plot or the characters, and there's a sarcastic sense of humor that floats in the background of this book. He makes his people real and believable, which guarantees that I'll be back for the next book in the series.  Very highly recommended.

fiction from Italy