Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Borrowed, by Chan Ho-Kei

Black Cat/Grove Atlantic, 2017
originally published 2014
translated by Jeremy Tiang
490 pp


The length of this book may seem daunting and potential readers may be wondering if a good mystery/crime novel can actually sustain itself over nearly 500 pages.  I had the same concern myself, but the author's done something very different here that put my worries to rest.  Instead of one long narrative, he offers us six shorter ones all connected via the main character and Hong Kong itself, ranging from 2013 to 1967.  No, I did not mean 1967 to 2013 -- this book runs chronologically backwards.  The Borrowed is a series of six crime puzzles to be solved, combined with a hefty dose of social realism; it's also a page turner with lots of unexpected twists along the way. 

At the end of this book the author explains that his original intention was to write a "classic detective novel," but decided against a book solely focused on "criminal cases." Instead, he says, his idea was to write "the story of a personality, a city, and an era." This "pivot" culminated in a series of six "stand-alone novellas,
"each one fuelled by mysteries and clues, but all six fitting together to form a complete portrait of society." 
 The star of this show is Kwan Chun-dok, who as the first story opens, lies dying of cancer in a hospital.  He is a retired police superintendent, respected and revered by his superiors and those below him in rank as well. He's that rare legendary figure, whose powers of deduction and his ability to take in everything about a case has given him the moniker of "The Eye of Heaven."  Kwan is also mentor to the other major (and younger) figure in this book, Sonny Lok.  Reading backwards, we follow the Superintendent's career from his latter days back to his origins as a beat cop; Sonny Lok also grows from rookie status to Inspector.  At the same time, the time frames in which each story plays out says something about different moments in Hong Kong's history; as just one example, the handover of Hong Kong from British to Chinese rule in 1997 plays a role in one of these stories.  They are all, as I said, puzzles to be solved, with plots ranging from the murder of a high-profile family member down to a series of politically-motivated bombings that launched Kwan's career.

Hong Kong, from Hong Wrong
The crime-solving aspects of this book are highly original, at least in comparison to most police procedural novels I've encountered.  I have to admit that the first story, "The Truth Between Black and White: 2013," nearly sent this book flying across the room because of what I felt was a wholly unbelievable premise. Cue inner groaning and eyeroll.  However, I stuck with it  and was rewarded with a big laugh -- it seems that the joke was entirely on me.  I mention this bit of information because what happens here might cause other serious crime readers to have my same reaction, so hang in there.  And while they're all quite good, my favorite of the six is "The Prisoner's Dilemma: 2003," which involves the struggle between two major triads, drugs,  and the case of a missing young woman.  The major twist in this tale blew me away completely, using a device that I thought was a stroke of genius on the author's part.

Whether or not you get the "complete portrait of society" in this book over time as the author intended will probably come down to reader perspective.  I will say that the book moves around various areas of Hong Kong and does include all manner of people within them, from the highest of the elites down to people on the street.  Mr. Chan takes us through turbulent political times and upheavals, examines the rampant corruption within the police department, resentment against the British as colonial masters; he sends us through the famous Hong Kong street markets, and on into neighborhood streets and then into areas ruled by competing Triads, etc., with much of the action taking place in the same areas over time.  And then there's the question that ran through my head the entire time of why this book goes backwards in time.  I'm thinking that perhaps it's more than just highlighting the career of the Superintendent and how things change yet remain the same over time;  at the end, for me (without giving away any spoilers on my part), it came down to one simple question that brings everything full circle back to the beginning of the book.  Hint: you have to be on mental alert for this one -- it's all in a name.  It also, I think, gives great insight into why Kwan has such a 360-degree view when it comes to crime solving, all stemming from a single event.

Overall, The Borrowed is definitely a no-miss book for readers who enjoy moving well out of the crime fiction mainstream and into something completely different.  And while I don't think it's perfect, it ended up being a page turner that I absolutely could not put down once I started it in earnest. Its originality will shake anyone out of his or her mainstream reading rut for sure -- after you read it, standard crime fiction fare will seem blah and tame in comparison.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Babylon Berlin, by Volker Kutscher

Picador, 2018
originally published as
  Der Nasse Fisch. Gereon Rath erster Fall, 2007
translated by Niall Seller
423 pp


Read earlier this month.  Actually, Babylon Berlin is a book I didn't even know existed until I watched the Netflix series with this title a few weeks back.  When I saw that it came from a book, I knew I had to read it.  I also have the second one, The Silent Death, sitting here but it will have to wait until I return from vacation.  Speaking of the Netflix series, anyone planning to read this book should know right up front that the book is not the series -- they are two very different entities, so a word of warning:  don't expect the novel to be a mirror to the television show.

If you don't make comparisons in your head as you go along, giving the book a chance to speak for itself,  this first installment of the series featuring Gereon Rath makes for a pretty darn good read.  It is set in 1929 Berlin, during the waning years of the rather decadent Weimar period, and is our introduction to Inspector Gereon Rath, who has come to Berlin from Cologne and has been assigned to the Vice division, thanks to his father pulling the right strings after he suffers a major disgrace in his home town.  While Rath is busy keeping down porn and making his way through the city's underground nightclubs, the Homicide Division is struggling with the case they've nicknamed "Aquarius." It's a case that is driving the division crazy; they have very little to go on aside from the fact that their victim was tortured before he died of a heroin overdose and the car he was in was sent purposefully into a canal.

 In the meantime, a tangle in his lodging-house room one night with a Russian man sets Rath on the trail of the prior tenant, who has dealings with underworld gangs and anti-Stalinist communists.  It's then that he hears the strange story of smuggled Russian gold, but more importantly, his own secret investigation, plus info he gets from Charlotte, a young Homicide department stenographer, gives him what he feels might be the upper hand in the Aquarius case -- a  "nasse fisch," (wet fish) --  now a case "put on ice."   Solving the case on his own is especially important to Rath for his own reasons -- he can't stand the "arrogant homicide detective" running Aquarius, and with his knowledge that he keeps to himself, he "looked forward to the day when he could show him up..."  But he's also carried a lot of baggage from Cologne to Berlin, which has some personal bearing on the importance of solving this case.

 Everything is looking great for this young and ambitious Inspector, right up until the time when things go horribly wrong, putting both his career and his life in serious jeopardy.

Inspector Gideon Rath, from the TV series -- Nordic Drama

Political struggles on the streets, seedy underground nightspots run by rival gangs, rival Communist factions, all pale in comparison to the real story here, which is the corruption that permeates all levels of this city.  For Gideon, who's still getting used to how things work in Berlin, trying to figure out who exactly he can trust also becomes a major issue. He's in an unusual spot of being both insider and outsider; he has no interest in politics, and in a very big way he comes across as being rather naive.

First novels in a series are generally the weakest, but this one is actually quite good.  I mean, the reality is that there is a book two and beyond so we know things are going to work out, but I swear, I was on pins and needles throughout,  wondering how Rath was going to fare.  But there's also the element of the here and now in this city that captured my attention; there are brief mentions of Hitler and of Nazis but this is a very "in this moment" sort of book that doesn't really give any clue as to where Germany will go in the next few years. 

One reader noted that this book reminded her of the novels of Marek Krajewski, but I'm not sure I agree with that assessment -- Krajewski's work gets down into the deepest decadence of this period in ways that this book and author never do.  I've also seen more than one comparison of Babylon Berlin to the work of Philip Kerr, but again, I don't think that's exactly accurate either. And to those readers who found this book "too long" and "tedious," well, there's also a graphic novel available.

If you can divorce yourself  while reading this book from the stunning Netflix series, it turns into a very good read.  Otherwise, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment since aside from people and a couple of plot elements that carry from page to screen, the two are very, very different.  Do not miss the series though; unexpected twists in every episode will keep you glued and wanting to binge.

On to book two.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Neighborhood, by Mario Vargas Llosa

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018
originally published as Cinco Esquinas, 2016
translated by Edith Grossman
244 pp


I'm posting about this book here because the dustjacket blurb says that it's a "crime thriller."  While there is a crime (a murder, as a matter of fact), the book is certainly much more than just mere crime-fiction fodder.   I will say right up front that in terms of the writing,  The Neighborhood is nowhere close to the excellence of his other books (Feast of the Goat and Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter spring to mind immediately); having said that though, I think it is a book worth reading,  most especially because it comes down to the question of journalistic integrity in a country rampant with corruption.

We're in Lima during the 1990s when Peru was under the leadership of Alberto Fujimori. The topics that "obsessed every household in those days" were
"the attacks and kidnappings of the Shining Path and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, the MRTA, the blackouts almost every night because electrical towers had been blown up, leaving entire districts of the city in darkness, and the explosions the terrorists used to awaken Limeños at midnight and at dawn."
 Citizens are under curfew; many business people have fled the country taking their money with them.  Not so Enrique Cardenas -- "Quique to his wife and friends" -- an engineer who has made his fortune in mining.   He is visited one day by the editor of a "yellow" magazine by the name of  Rolando Garro, who tries to blackmail Quique with photos that reveal Quique's participation in a drug-fueled orgy some time back.  Garro had been in journalism for some time before he found his true calling, "to use as he pleased and  help to ruin without pity," and he was popular among a
"public delighted to follow his revelations, accusing singers and musicians of being faggots, his morbid explorations of the private lives of public persons, his 'first fruits' exposing the base and shameful acts that he always exaggerated and at times invented."
Enrique doesn't pay and the photos are splashed all over the front page of Garro's magazine Exposed. The scandal that follows is bad enough for Enrique, but when Garro is found dead close to the neighborhood known as the Five Corners "the navel of Barrios Altos" and "one of the most violent neighborhoods in Lima,"  Enrique becomes a suspect, things quickly get worse.  But the murder also has other  outcomes that will land squarely on the shoulders of Garro's star reporter, Julieta Leguizamón, aka Shorty.

It doesn't take too long before the reader notices that this book is split into two very different worlds. The author begins in that of the Cardenas family and their friends, who live in the lap of luxury,  own properties and go for weekends outside of the country, and who are free to indulge in some rather hedonistic pleasures (including the sex scene that opens the novel which occurred because of the curfew).  The two women in these families seem bored and in need of distraction.   Their money cushions them from the realities of the hardscrabble life of the residents on the streets of Barrios Altos,  the world inhabited by people like Shorty and by Juan Peineta, a former popular, well-known reciter of verses (including those of Neruda) who used to have his own radio show and now waits in line for his single meal of the day at a local convent.   But corruption knows no boundaries in this book -- it permeates through this city at all levels.

Aside from the unnecessarily long, drawn-out sex scenes (which I didn't like at all, but I got the point) and the unnecessary subplot attached to them, The Neighborhood is a good, not great book, which when all is said and done, for me comes down to a question of journalistic integrity and truth amid a climate of corruption.  And although it's set in the 1990s, it is highly relevant at the moment, an even better reason for reading it.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

*Prince Zaleski, by M.P. Shiel

Valancourt Books, 2010
originally published 1895
84 pp

With Prince Zaleski, my time in the 1890s and the nineteenth century comes to an end, although I still have tons of books sitting here from that decade which I'll eventually come back to.  And that brings up a good question -- with all of  the books from that time sitting here still unread, why Prince Zaleski? The answer is simple: it combines mystery/detective fiction with  fin-de-siècle Decadence, something I hadn't yet encountered in British detective fiction of the period.

Briefly, Prince Zaleski was published as part of John Lane's Keynotes fiction series of books published between 1893 and 1897. As we learn in the introduction to this edition by Paul Fox, contemporary reviews were mixed.  For example, H.G. Wells panned the book, saying that Lane  "in his short but brilliant career" had never "published anything half so bad before." He calls Zaleski "Sherlock -- demented..." while he goes on to say that "the book is too foolish even to keep one laughing at it," questioning its placement in the Keynotes series.  Oops. At the same time, Vanity Fair gave it a fine review, calling it "a very superior article altogether," a book that was "intended for the delight of a very superior class of readers." (x)   

In Prince Zaleski the strange mysteries that he ponders are brought to him by a character named "Shiel." As the first story, "The Race of Orven," opens, Shiel (who is unnamed at this point) reveals that Prince Zaleski had been a victim of a
 "too importunate, too unfortunate Love, which the fulgor of the throne itself could not abash; exile perforce from his native land, and voluntary exile from the rest of  men!"
He lives in a "place of hermitage," a "brooding-place so desolate for the passage of his days," which Shiel sees as a "vast tomb of Mausolus." It is an old mansion which has definitely seen better days -- in the hall, for example, which was built along the lines of a "Roman atrium" complete with "oblong pool of turgid water," Shiel encounters a "troop of fat and otiose rats."  Dust clouds are everywhere, and Shiel  describes a  "funereal gloom" that permeates the place. He finds Zaleski is at home in a small apartment in "remote tower of the building," the entrance of which is guarded by his manservant Ham.  Evidently the Prince is quite fond of pot -- the air was "heavy" with the "fumes" of cannibis sativa.   There are all manner of Asian curios surrounding Zaleski, none the least of which is a sarcophagus with a rotting mummy within, culminating in an effect of a "bizarrerie of half-weird sheen and gloom."

 After some hash smoking and breakfast the next day, Shiel gets to the point of his visit, which has to do with the mysterious death of a certain Lord Pharanx.   After Zaleski manages to solve that particular enigma, two more cases are presented to him: "The Stone of the Edmundsbury Monks" and "The S.S."  While I'm not going to go into particulars of any of the three cases here,  Zaleski combines his encyclopedic brain and his powers of deduction  to provide answers via the armchair detective method in the first two cases, while taking on a more active role of investigator in the third.

There might be something to the "Sherlock -- demented" comment by H.G. Wells, but it becomes obvious not too long into the book that Prince Zaleski seemed to have been written more with Poe's Auguste Dupin as a model for the detective side of the main character.  Having read Poe's Dupin stories just last year, I can say that Shiel employs the same sort of "ratiocination" technique here as did Poe with his detective.  I have very mixed feelings about Prince Zaleski, precisely because of the style in which the solutions were given (which I didn't care for in the Dupin stories either) in the first two stories,  but I thoroughly enjoyed the sort of arcane and esoteric lore that comes out of Zaleski's head that helps him to solve his cases.  My favorite mystery is "The S.S." which is a horrific case of either mass suicides or murders; this one continues to have relevance to our times, but in my opinion it is the best of three cases here.

Prince Zaleski is the quintessential aesthete, which appeals to me, as does the Decadence tone of the book as a whole.  In his Glorious Perversity, Brian Stableford sets Prince Zaleski in the group of "most intensely lurid products of English Decadence"  between 1893 and 1896 including Studies of Death, by Count Eric Steinbock, The Stone-Dragon and Other Tragic Romances, by R. Murray Gilchrist, Machen's The Great God Pan and the Inmost Light, and Shiel's own Shapes in the Fire. (119).

Bottom line: while it's probably not going to grab the hearts and minds of modern crime/detective fiction readers, it is very much worth reading for others who are more inclined toward the weird, the esoteric and the just-plain strange.  This is not at all an average Victorian detective book, and it takes an extremely brave and patient reader to get through it.  But it is definitely a book I'm very happy to have read.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

*Miss Cayley's Adventures, by Grant Allen

Valancourt Books, 2016
originally serialized in The Strand, 1898-1899
220 pp


"I am an adventuress ... and I am in quest of adventures." 
                                                                 -- 36

Continuing on with my look at crime/mystery/detective novels of yesteryear, Miss Cayley's Adventures presents a bit of a surprise.  To be very honest, I hadn't heard of it until 2016 when it was republished by Valancourt, and even then I bought it and shelved it thinking I'd get to it sooner or later.  As I began to research exactly what books I wanted to read in my little independent survey here, I kept coming across this title, so here we are.

Because I don't really read reviews or too much in the way of plot synopses before I pick up a book, I assumed this book was going to be another Victorian work of the exploits of a  female detective much along the lines of the previous ones I've read and talked about here. But no -- with Miss Lois Cayley I got way more than I bargained for.  She is, like Loveday Brooke, an example of the "New Woman" of fin-de-siècle Victorian literature; at the same time, unlike Loveday Brooke, Miss Cayley does not make detection her specific profession. She is 21, has just finished her studies at Girton College and although (according to her friend Elsie Petheridge) her next logical step would be to teach, Miss Cayley is not at all interested in becoming one of the group of "dear good schoolmistresses."

from Project Gutenberg

Instead, she views herself as "a bit of a rebel," and has devised a plan of
"going out, simply in search of adventure. What adventure may come, I have not at the moment the faintest conception. The fun lies in the search, the uncertainty, the toss-up of it."
She also has only twopence in her pocket, but has made up her mind to "go round the world."  Her first opportunity for adventure arises when she overhears a "Cantankerous Old Lady" complaining loudly about having lost her maid just as she's about to go abroad and head for the waters at Schlagenbad.  Lois offers herself as traveling companion to the woman, Lady Georgina Fawley, to travel with her and to stay for one week, giving Lady Georgina plenty of time to find a replacement maid. After all, as Lois considers,
"The Rhine leads you on to the Danube, the Danube to the Black Sea, the Black Sea to Asia; and so by way of India, China, and Japan, you reach the Pacific and San Francisco; whence one returns quite easily by New York and the White Star Liners... the Cantankerous Old Lady was the thin end of the wedge -- the first rung of the ladder!"
Lady Georgina accepts, and Miss Cawley's journey begins; she proves her worth early on, even before they arrive in Germany, by thwarting the theft of Lady Georgina's jewels by a fellow passenger whom she knows only as "The Count."  This is only the first of many adventures that will befall Miss Cawley as she makes her way to several destinations; along the way she will compete in a cycling competition against German army soldiers, take on a mountain rescue when Lady Georgina's nephew takes a nasty tumble and can't climb back up, unmask  a bogus faith healer, take part in a tiger hunt, and much, much more. Her detection skills serve her best when they are most needed, especially at the end of the book.

"I gripped the rope and let myself down."  from Project Gutenberg

One thing that the author does very carefully here is to discern between connotations of the word  "adventuress."  This is one of the main themes running throughout the book, beginning with Lady Georgina's worries that her nephew Harold (who has fallen for our heroine and wants to marry her) will be tempted by "some fascinating adventuress" who will "try to marry him out of hand," and that she must make sure that he is saved from "the clever clutches of designing creatures." Lois considers herself an "adventuress," but not in the negative term as set forth by Lady Georgina -- but because of what his aunt has said, feels the need to refuse Harold's proposal of marriage. As she says:
"I dare not tell you how much I like him. He is a dear, good, kind fellow. But I cannot rest under the cruel imputation of being moved by his wealth and having tried to capture him." 
To put it briefly into context (and just FYI, I find I get much more out of my reading by doing so, not because I want to be an "authority," but to make myself a more informed reader), according to Joseph A. Kestner in Sherlock's Sisters: The British Female Detective 1864-1913, the author here is offering a repudiation to an essay written by the "virulently anti-feminist" essayist Eliza Linn Lynton, whose "animosity towards....the New Woman" was noted even in her obituary.  She referred to them as "Wild Women" who had about them "an unpleasant suggestion of the adventuress."  While Linton's name appears in the text of Miss Cayley's Adventures, it seems that, as Kestner notes, "many aspects of Lois Cayley's character seem created to challenge the predispositions of opponents of the New Woman." (124)  And once again, as in the case of Loveday Brooke, we find the question referring to the meaning of "ladylike"  come up more than once. 

Miss Cayley's Adventures is a surprisingly fun hybrid of detection, travel narrative and adventure, with a bit of romance thrown in, but it's so much more. The words "plucky heroine" come to mind, but that's really sort of belittling what the author does here with his lead character.  It's a book I could chat about for hours, and is a refreshing and never-dull  take on the Victorian New Woman, but there's much, much more going on here as well.   And the fact that it was written by a man makes it even more interesting, in my opinion.  

While my copy is from Valancourt, it is also available online at Project Gutenberg. Very much recommended, especially to those looking for something different in their reading or for early detective novels featuring an independent woman as a lead character.  It's also a book to just relax and have fun with while looking forward to whatever adventure waits around the corner for our Miss Cayley. Dear reader,  I loved her. 

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Obscure, yes, but oh so good: The Six Queer Things, by Christopher St. John Sprigg

Valancourt Books, 2018
originally published 1937
222 pp

"... the whole web of horror behind them had been brought to light; but somewhere there still lurked the spider who had spun it all..."

The word sinister doesn't even begin to describe what happens in this book.  Originally published in 1937, The Six Queer Things is definitely not your average Golden Age mystery novel; in fact, I can honestly say that I've never read anything quite like it.  It is not only sinister, but it is also one of the most claustrophobic novels I've read from this period, and the author keeps you guessing right up until the last four pages before ending it on a most cruel note.   Before getting to that point, however, this story takes some unexpected and bizarre twists and turns, and the answer to who can be trusted here changes on a regular basis. The only times I put this book down once I started was for sleep and a session at the gym, and I had to make myself do both.  The best way to describe it is that it's like reading an ongoing nightmare from which there is little chance of escape.  

Marjorie Easton has been living with her uncle Samuel Burton since the death of her parents. He is described on the cover blurb as miserly, but Marjorie
"had had a long first-hand experience of absolute absorption in himself, his pettiness, and the supreme importance he attached to money."
She works as a junior typist, making only enough for personal needs with anything left over going to directly to her uncle.  He constantly reminds her of the fact that he had "fed, clothed and educated her," and that she owes him.  The bright spot in her life is her boyfriend Ted, but they can't marry until Ted feels he has enough money to take care of her properly.  Marjorie can't wait to get away from Uncle Samuel, so when she is offered a job that pays much more than she currently makes, she jumps at the opportunity.  The offer comes about as result of a chance meeting, and she finds herself in the employ of Michael Crispin, who takes her on as a sort of research assistant.  As it turns out, Crispin is a well-known medium, and along with his sister Bella, holds regular seances at the family home where Marjorie is expected to live while in their employment.   It is during one of these seances that Marjorie finds herself the object of a visit from the great beyond; soon Marjorie begins to believe that she herself has some psychic gifts of her own.   She sets herself apart from Ted to work on her psychic abilities, and Ted isn't too happy.  Worse, Marjorie's focus on her mediumistic tendencies leave her headed for a breakdown, further separating herself from Ted while she is under medical care.  But everyone's life is upended when Crispin suddenly dies just after a seance; from there this story takes on a life of its own as the police try to figure out who killed Crispin and why.  But this is, as I said, no ordinary mystery and while the police are doing their job, both Marjorie and Ted become locked into frightening nightmares of their own.

The New York Times review blurb quoted on the back of my book says that it is "Mystery and horror, laid on with a trowel," and that's about right.  It is filled with nice Victorian Gothic flourishes as well as contemporary policing, but at the heart of this story lies a most sinister plot with a villain who, even when "the whole web of horror...had been brought to light," still remains the unknown and mysterious "spider who had spun it all" from the beginning.

Hats off to Valancourt yet again for finding and publishing something quite out of the ordinary.  When I say that this book is unputdownable, I'm not kidding.  This book has it all -- a bit of meandering into the realm of the occult (and a sideways commentary on spiritualism in general by the author underneath it all),  a claustrophobic atmosphere that doesn't let up, and a strange mystery at the heart of it all  that will keep you turning pages because once things take that turn toward the strange nightmarish story it becomes,  you will absolutely want to find out what kind of mind it is that could dream up such sheer evil. And while it's probably not going to join the ranks of the greatest literature or greatest crime novel ever written, for me it all comes down to the fun I had while reading it. 

Don't blow it off because it's from the 1930s -- trust me -- you haven't read anything quite like it.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

*huzzah for the ladies: The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective

Wildside Press, 2012
originally serialized in Ludgate Monthly (1893)
   (minus "Missing"); published 1894
142 pp


"Too much of a lady, do you say?...I don't care twopence halfpenny whether she is or is not a lady." 

So says Mr. Ebenezer Dyer, the head of the "flourishing detective agency in Lynch Court.  In fact, he goes on to brag about his operative, Loveday Brooke, as having "so much common sense that it amounts to genius."  And that she does, often, it seems, moreso than the police or even her boss when it comes to solving a case.

Up to now in this "history of mystery" I've been doing, I've experienced two "lady" detectives, both of them characters sprung from male minds.   Loveday Brooke comes straight from the pen of Catherine Louisa Pirkis (1839-1910),  who would go on to write a total of thirteen novels, several short stories (aside from Loveday Brooke), and a novella.  She and her husband were very actively involved in the anti-vivisectionist movement as well as the National Canine Defence League, and she was also engaged in other types of humanitarian work. 

Loveday Brooke as a fictional character fits squarely into the "New Woman" mold, a term which refers to
"a significant cultural icon of the fin de siècle, departed from the stereotypical Victorian woman. She was intelligent, educated, emancipated, independent and self-supporting."
 Her significance as a New Woman detective is so important, in fact, that Volume IV of a series produced by Routledge  that explores New Women Fiction is completely dedicated to this character; since it's highly likely that while I'm very much into it, the state of fin-de-siècle Britain's pre-feminist women's literature is probably not a hot topic for a number people reading this at the moment, I'll leave it to anyone at all interested to read Adrienne Gavin's introduction  here and get right to the book.

from victorianclare, original cover complete with business card

We actually learn very little about Loveday Brooke herself here.  We know that she was "a little over thirty years of age" that she dressed "invariably" in black, her dress "almost Quaker-like in its appearance."   Of her backstory Pirkis writes that
"Some five or six years previously, by a jerk of Fortune's wheel, Loveday had been thrown upon the world penniless and all but friendless. Marketable accomplishments she had found she had none, so she had forthwith defied convention, she had chosen for herself a career that had cut her off sharply from her former associates and her position in society.  For five or six years she drudged away patiently in the lower walks of her profession; then chance, or to speak more precisely, an intricate criminal case, threw her in the way of the experienced head of the flourishing detective agency in Lynch Court." (8)
Her boss seems to have been a shrewd man; he realized her worth quickly and "threw her in the way of better-class work," which meant better pay.    Over the course of the seven stories in this book, her "common sense" that "amounts to genius" is reflected in the way she not only comes up with solutions to each mystery, but also in the way that she refuses to go along with the police or with the victims of each crime who immediately settle on "foreigners" as the guilty parties. Xenophobic attitudes of the period are writ large here, by the way, but to her credit, our heroine has an ability to see right through them.   She is also not the sort of female detective who needs to rely on seduction as a tool for getting close to suspects, relying mainly on her keen sense of observation and her wide-ranging understanding of human nature.

all pulped-up, from Amazon  (NO!)

I have to say that one thing readers might notice is that in most of these stories it doesn't seem like Brooke is doing much "detecting" -- that she goes on scene, takes in a few details and then dazzles us with her observations.  That is true in more than one case and it has caused readers to complain about the lack of "fair play."  I had to go and look up the concept of "fair play," and learned that the so-called "rules" involved in "fair play" were not codified until 1928, so really, in my opinion it doesn't apply here.  There are a couple of very good stories here, none the least of which is "The Redhill Sisterhood," in which Loveday is sent to spy on a "home for cripples" (you really have to look beyond the language here) in order to try to figure out the connection between the nuns who run the place and a string of country house robberies.   That one was just great, for several reasons I won't go into in case anyone decides to read the book.  I will also mention that I completely sussed the solution to "Drawn Daggers!" not too far into it, but for the most part, the big reveals were complete surprises.  However, because this collection of tales is a product of the late Victorian era, I would advise a bit of patience while reading.  The stories are good, not great, but to me it's all about Loveday Brooke herself, making her way in what was normally a male profession, often doing a much better job than her male counterparts in this book.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Crime, by Ferdinand von Schirach

Alfred A. Knopf, 2011
originally published as Verbrechen, 2009
translated by Carol Brown Janeway
188 pp


"The reality we can put into words is never reality itself." 
-- Werner K. Heisenberg, epigraph

I watched the most interesting tv show last week on MHZ called "Crime Stories" and realized when the name Von Schirach popped up that I had this book on my shelves.   Instead of doing my normal thing where I read the book first, I stayed up late and watched the entire show; the next day I grabbed the book and started reading.   In the series the first episode grabbed me and wouldn't let go; reading the book was the same.  

There are eleven short fictional vignettes here, all of which are linked by the concept of guilt. My understanding is that they're are all based on the cases of former clients of Von Schirach, who is a somewhat controversial German defense attorney and very well-known writer. This book, after its publication, remained  on Der Spiegel's bestseller list for 54 weeks, according to Wikipedia.   These are not your standard legal defense narratives by any stretch;  it is the circumstances leading up to the commission of each crime which informs the basis of each story.   It is also an exploration of not only what constitutes the idea of guilt,  but also what it is that lies at the core of each human in this book.  These people are not the sort of monsters one might expect in cases such as these; some of them make very bad judgment calls, some are driven by mental illness, while others, well, those I'll leave for readers to discover.   He also, I think, asks us to consider the nature of sentencing and justice -- given the human factors beneath what these people have done, is it right in every case to hand down a one-size-fits-all-by-law, prescribed sort of judgment?

The first story,  "Fähner," sets the tones of  both writing and discourse within this book.   The author employs a rather lean, unemotional sort of prose style to relate the tale of  a GP from Rotweil who, as the cover blurb notes, finally got a "reprieve" the day he took an axe to his wife's head.  But Fähner is no hardened criminal; as we're told at the outset his "life wasn't anything that gave rise to stories. Until the thing with Ingrid." The thing is, while we have the basic outline of Fähner's life with his wife, there are no detailed scenes between the two of them that allow us to see exactly what was happening; the author leaves it to the reader to read between the lines.   But there's a great scene in this story where, on the night before he turns 60, he looks at a photo of his wife taken during their honeymoon (one he'd salvaged and hidden after she'd thrown away  their wedding photos) , sits on the edge of the bathtub, and cries "for the first time in his adult life." It's the understanding that he comes to at this point that really allows the reader to see inside of his mind and to feel some empathy for this man; his story continues through trial, judgment and sentencing.  Throughout Fähner's experiences, and actually, throughout this entire set of stories, we are called upon to consider something Von Schirach's uncle once told him:  "Most things are complicated, and guilt always presents a bit of a problem."

As the author himself says,
"All our lives we dance on a thin layer of ice; it's very cold underneath, and death is quick. The ice won't bear the weight of some people and they fall through"
and it is that moment that interests him.  How many people in our lives  might be just a set of circumstances away from that moment is another thing we ought to consider; it's a point he makes very clearly in this book:
"If we're lucky, it never happens to us and we keep dancing. If we're lucky."
I was floored after finishing it, and there were moments in this book where I had to put it down and really think before I could go back to it.  Whether or not anyone will sympathize with the people in this book is an individual judgment call, but it is really tough not to feel something.  The book itself is  also an excellent use of crime fiction as a way to understand not only human nature, but also in offering insights into society itself.

Definitely recommended; not at all usual crime fare but something unique.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Crooked House, by Agatha Christie

Bantam, 1999
originally published 1949
215 pp


"I think people more often kill those they love than those they hate. Possibly because only the people you love really can make life unendurable to you." 

As much as I value these beautiful leatherette editions of Christie's work, mainly because my husband bought them for me some time ago, the covers have absolutely no soul.  I have a deep love for vintage cover art, and the original cover of Crooked House really can't be beat: just looking at that picture conjures up something sinister and sort of whets the appetite for what

might be found between the covers, and since the bulk of the action takes place within the walls of this house, Three Gables, its distorted appearance here is beyond appropriate.

Crooked House is, according to Christie herself in An Autobiography (1977), one of two of her favorite books, the other being Ordeal by Innocence.  As she says, those two are the ones "that satisfy me best."  While maybe I wasn't as satisfied by Crooked House as Christie was, it was still a good read.  Last week I rented the recent film based on this novel but realized I hadn't read Crooked House in eons, and had quite forgotten the plot, so it seemed like a good time to refresh my memory.

I think more than in any other Christie crime novel, Dame Agatha takes us right to the heart of the matter from the very outset.  It seems that wealthy tycoon Aristides Leonides has died, and the doctor has refused to sign a death certificate until there is a post mortem.  His granddaughter Sophia pays a visit to her fiancé Charles Hayward, and tells him that she believes that his death was no accident -- that he may have been killed.  The need for a post mortem makes Sophia think that "It's quite clear that they suspect something is wrong," and that their plans for marriage have to put on hold since they "can't settle anything until this is cleared up."  She would like Charles to help her and to come to the house and to see her family "from an unbiased point of view," giving him access to everyone in the house.    She also reveals that even if her grandfather's death turns out to have been murder and not an accident, "it won't matter -- so long as the right person killed him."

Even his father, the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, echoes this sentiment, and Charles will hear it more than once from several Leonides family members as he enters Three Gables to hopefully get to the bottom of what's going on.  Most everyone already thinks they know who killed Aristides, and considering the obvious suspect(s), that statement seems like an obvious case of upper-class snobbery.  But wait.   Charles isn't so sure that he agrees with their idea of the murderer.   He can see both sides of the issue, but even more importantly, as he says, he can see the "human side of things," which the family could not.  He puzzles over the
"two sides of the question -- different angles of vision -- which was the true angle ... the true angle..."
because in a "little crooked house," one that "had a strange air of being distorted," Charles realizes that  trying to come up with the right perspective from "the true angle" will be difficult.  At the same time, he has to contend with the idea that if the murderer is one of the members of the family, as Sophia realizes, it would reveal a "crookedness" or distortion among one of their number.

from Deep Work

In a big way, this book is less about plot or solving the crime than it is about delving into human nature; because of Charles' relationship with Sophia, he is made privy to each person's particulars so we get to see each and every member of this household as an individual rather than just as a potential suspect.  We are also let into this three-generation family dynamic, which adds another dimension to this story. Normally this sort of "closed circle" form of mystery allows for the culprit to be caught and order to be restored, but then again, this is no ordinary mystery story.  Sure, there are more deaths, some strange goings on with Aristides' will, and other normal trappings but this one brings us right into the heart of human nature territory, and will lead to a most startling conclusion that was completely unexpected.

After giving it some thought, I've decided that I actually enjoyed this novel mainly because it is so very different from most of Christie's other work; it becomes much more of a personal story in the long run rather than just another detective tale and I think that's what sets it apart. And here, plot is much less important than the examination into human nature, although I have to admit that while it was a quick read, it moved rather slowly until we come to those last few eye-opening pages.

I enjoyed seeing this book come to life in movie form; it wasn't great, but it was definitely fun.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

*The Dorrington Deed-Box, by Arthur Morrison

Wildside Press, 2016
originally serialized in The Windsor Magazine, January - June 1897
originally published in 1897 by Ward, Lock
139 pp


Picking up from where I left off in December, we roll into the 1890s with this little gem, The Dorrington Deed-Box. While it continues the detective-fiction craze of the late Victorian period, Horace Dorrington, of the firm Dorrington and Hicks,  is no run-of-the-mill private enquiry agent.  Au contraire -- the back-cover blurb refers to him as a "cheerfully unrepentant sociopath,"  as well as someone who doesn't shy away from a bit of "blackmail, fraud, or cold-blooded murder to make a dishonest penny."  The Dorrington Deed-Box was actually my second choice of stories by Arthur Morrison -- I had thought to read his collection of Martin Hewitt stories, but Hewitt seemed a bit tame compared to Dorrington and I wanted something different than the usual detective fare.  Trust me, I got what I asked for in this book.  The fun here is not so much in the crime solving but in watching Dorrington slowly ensnaring his victims -- he is the proverbial spider inviting the fly into his carefully-constructed web.

There are six short stories in this collection which begins with "The Narrative of Mr. James Rigby."  In a strange sort of twist, Rigby becomes our guide through five more nefarious adventures of this slimy worm of a detective,  which Rigby unearths from documents left behind in the offices of Dorrington and Hicks after his own harrowing experience.  As he says,
"...among their papers were found complete sets, neatly arranged in dockets, each containing in skeleton a complete history of a case.  Many of these cases were of a most interesting character, and I have been enabled to piece together, out of material thus suppllied the narratives which will follow this." (28)

from Project Gutenberg Australia

It seems that Rigby wants everyone to understand the type of fellow Mr. Horace Dorrington really is,  and if anyone should know, it's Rigby.   His own encounter with Dorrington obviously left several scars, including the fact that he never received any sort of justice in his case.  The book exposes the true nature of the detective, who presents one side of himself to some people and his real self to others.  While I won't go into the individual cases, Rigby enlightens us as to Dorrington's sinister deeds in

"The Case of Janissary"
"The Case of the 'Mirror of Portugal"
"The Affair of the 'Avalanche Bicycle and Tyre Co. Limited' "
"The Case of Mr. Loftus Deacon" and
"Old Cater's Money."

in which we find the detective involved in crimes ranging from the upper-class, race-track set on down to a moneylender who makes Scrooge seem generous.  The Dorrington Deed-Box is not only cleverly constructed, but in the character of Dorrington himself, we find something quite different than the normal run of detectives up to this point in crime-fiction literature and I have to say it was refreshing.  My only issue with this book is that there are things in these stories that "skeleton" accounts would not offer, and although Rigby sort of covers that fact by saying he'd picked up things from various people about these cases, it still led me to wonder how he could have constructed conversations and thoughts, etc.  In the long run though, it doesn't really matter -- this is my first exposure to a late-Victorian sleazy detective and I thought it was just great.  

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

good old-fashioned fun: Murder in Little Shendon, by A.H. Richardson

Every so often I tend to overdo in my reading life, and that happened to me toward the end of 2017.  It's not so much the number of books I read, but more the intensity of what I read, and by the end of the year I was actually burned out.  Add to that a number of real-world stress-producing events here, and it was time for a mental battery-recharging, week-long vacation.  I took a number of books along, nothing too heavy, and this novel was included in the stack.  It was exactly what the doctor ordered -- an old-fashioned, old-style British murder mystery -- no sex scenes, no gratuitous violence, no overly-complicated plotlines -- just quiet, solid reading fun, a brain relaxer and mental palate cleanser before I start moving up the reading-intensity scale again.  

Serano Press, 2015
249 pp
my copy sent to me from the publisher, thanks!

The victim in this case has left behind nearly an entire village's worth of people who may have wanted to kill him, so the story turns out to be an old-fashioned whodunit.  It seems that the now-deceased Mr. Bartholomew Fynche, who owned an antique shop called "The Bygone Era," had so many enemies that trying to figure out exactly who dealt the fatal blow that caved in his skull "fully an inch or two" is going to be a tough job for Inspector Burgess.  A phone call to his superintendent results in a pair of reinforcements: first, Sir Victor Hazlitt, whose eccentric aunt lives in the village and who knew the victim; second, Beresford Brandon, well-known actor with an "interest in criminology" whom the Superintendent feels may be of use to Burgess since people  in Little Shendon might open up to him.   Hazlitt stays with his aunt at her home while Brandon takes lodgings at the local village pub, where his job is to listen and collect gossip that might be helpful. It's an unlikely match, really, but it does seem to work, especially because Brandon has a way with people, some of whom in turn are awed by the fact that they're in the presence of a famous actor.  Between the three of them, they are determined to get to the bottom of this murder, sifting through witnesses, clues, and above all, Fynche's past to do so.  A second murder, however, complicates their task.  

Since there are so many people who could have done the dastardly deed, Murder in Little Shendon moves very slowly through witness questioning and scenes between the characters that definitely have something to hide from each other and from the police.  It is, in fact, a very slow-burning kind of mystery novel in which the author takes her time so that by the time of the big reveal, we know all the secrets in this little village except, of course, for the biggest one of them all.   She also builds on the fears among the inhabitants of Little Shendon that it is indeed one of their own that has committed these two crimes, and how this knowledge affects all of these people living in this closely-knit village.   

I have to say that I never guessed the identity of the culprit, which is always a plus; I enjoyed the slow pace of the story that offers time for thought in terms of my favorite pastime of armchair detecting, and many of the characters were eccentric enough to be invested in them.  On the other hand, while I was happy not to have guessed the who, it seems like the backstory of this character given at the end just sort of came out of nowhere without even the slightest hints being given anywhere else.   I found that sort of off-putting, but that's just a personal thing, since I have this need to sort of ferret out what sort of secrets lurk in characters' backgrounds through smallish sort of hints planted here and there that make for an "aha" moment when all is revealed.  Overall, it was a fine vacation mystery and I'm very happy to have had the opportunity to have read it -- as I said, it was absolutely what the doctor ordered: a slow-paced sort of throwback to the old-style British murder mystery with no flash, no gimmicks, no police angst, an unhurried pace, and plenty of red herrings. It would be perfectly at home on the shelves of cozy readers, for sure!

Thanks so much to Kelsey, and to the author for my copy of this book. It was just good, old-fashioned fun. 

Friday, January 5, 2018

The Accident on the A35, by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Contraband, 2017
256 pp


I'm sort of waffling about posting about this book here since technically it's not exactly a crime novel, but since the main character is a detective, this seems like the relevant place.

I have to give this book and its author serious applause.  If my 2018 reading year maintains this sort of quality, oh what a great year it will be.

Anyone who's read Burnet's The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau knows that the author set that story based on one single event from which everything else flowed.  That happens here as well, as Detective Georges Gorski is on scene to investigate a fatal accident on the A35, involving 59 year-old Bertrand Barthelme of 14 Rue des Bois, Saint-Louis.  Looking over the car, he finds nothing that might "communicate something to him," finishes his investigation, and leaves it to the Road Accident Investigation Unit to finish up. He goes to inform Barthelme's widow about the death; he also breaks the news to her teenage son Raymond.  When the two of them come in the next day to identify the body of the deceased, Mme. Barthelme reveals to Gorski that something's been troubling her: her husband had told her he was dining in town, so there would have been no reason at all for him to have been on the A35 where the accident occurred.  Gorski decides that it would "not be inappropriate to make some discreet enquiries" about what her husband had been doing before the accident, and starts looking into his whereabouts.  This won't be easy, since the deceased's colleagues and acquaintances seem rather reluctant to speak to him. At the same time, what little he finds out only makes Gorski more curious. And then there's Raymond, whose relationship with his father was strained at best, who rummages through his dad's desk -- what he finds there will set him on his own path of discovery.

Reading The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau convinced me that Burnet was channeling Simenon; while carrying on in that vein in Accident on the A35,  he now brings in some of the existentialist flavor of Sartre with a side of Camus.  The alienation, the desire for freedom, the internal darkness is all there, running throughout the entire novel.  Burnet has really done a great job with the character of Raymond, who exemplifies the existential angst of doing and feeling what he wants to as opposed to conforming to social expectations; the same is true in the case of Gorski with the added problems of a failing family/home life and career which is anything but satisfying.   Add into the mix that these dramas play out within the confines of the claustrophobic town of Saint-Louis, and what may have started as a detective story turns into much more of an examination deep into the realm of the human psyche. And it's not pretty, trust me. 

One more thing:  the metafictional nods in the introduction and epilogue work very nicely this time; I was less keen on them with the previous novel but this time they add an entirely new dimension to the reading of this book.  I can't and won't say why, but all becomes very clear.

Feel free to disagree, but this book tops The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau which I didn't think could be done because that one was so good.  Don't expect your average, run-of-the-mill detective story here -- this book is something that transcends the mundane and the ordinary.  It's so refreshing these days to find an author who rises well out of the mainstream and moves his work into literary territory, and that is precisely why I'm so drawn to his work. It's also why I'll  keep buying and reading Burnet's books as long as he continues to write them. 

highly, highly recommended