I wanted to love them without reservation, but…

November 25, 2008 at 9:41 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

In recent weeks, I’ve read three novels of crime that were good – but not quite as good as they might have been:

game1 shall-not

news

The first two, by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles and Julia Spencer-Fleming respectively, are the latest entries in two series that I’ve been following for several years now. The strong suit of both thus far has been a long running love story. In the case of the Cynthia Harrod-Eagles novels, we’ve been following the story of Detective Inspector Bill Slider and  Joanna, a witness in a murder case. Slider is married and the father of two, and while he is a devoted parent, he and his wife have grown apart. In Orchestrated Death, the first book in the series, Slider  and Joanna, a violinist, are thrown together frequently in the course of the investigation, and their attraction to each other cannot be denied.

If you’ve read Spencer-Fleming’s novels (or read my blog post on our discussion of To Darkness and To Death), you’ll recognize the similarity in the set-up of both series. The relationship between Sheriff Russ Van Alstyne ane Rev. Clare Fergusson is especially fraught. We are, after all, talking about adultery – even if it’s only in their hearts – between a woman of the cloth and a law enforcement officer.

So, what was the problem with these two books?  Primarily, the difficulties lay with the plotting. The stories were too convoluted, and there was too much exposition crowded in at the end. Truth to tell, I had an additional problem with I Shall Not Want. The book featured several scenes of explicit sex that, for me, read like something straight out of a rather lurid romance novel. I admit, this reflects my own bias against that kind of writing in crime fiction, where I find it jarring and out of place. It definitely struck me that way in I Shall Not Want.

That said, do I still recommend these two series? Actually, yes. Both Harrod-Eagles and Spencer-Fleming write exceptionally well. And Harrod-Eagles is very witty to boot. I care about all of these characters as I would old friends. And in I Shall Not Want, Julia Spencer-Fleming introduces a new character, Hadley Knox, whom I hope to see more of. Hadley is new on the Miller’s Kill police force, a single mother from California who’s come East with the hope of a new start in life. In this novel, she receives some pretty harrowing on-the-job training and, despite her lack of confidence, shows plenty of mettle when she’s literally under the gun.

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case-histories Four years ago, I and several crime fiction aficionados of my acquaintance  read a new title by Kate Atkinson. It was called Case Histories, and we all agreed: it was terrific! By radically redeploying the conventions of  crime fiction, Atkinson had produced a novel that was at once, funny, compassionate, brilliantly plotted, and filled with high drama and heartbreak.

Now, in a situation like this, it is undoubtedly  a tricky proposition for an author to exceed, or even match, expectations for subsequent work. Reviews like this one in Mystery Scene Magazine indicated that with When Will There Be Good News, Kate Atkinson had once again hit the jackpot. Well, having now read it, I have to say: IMHO, not quite…

The actual “good news” about this novel is that it is rich with the author’s lively wit and finely honed sense of irony. Literary allusions abound. I especially appreciated being introduced to the mysterious “Lyke Wake Dirge.” Here it is, sung by the British folk rock group Pentangle:

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In one of the main plot threads, the investigation into a disappearance takes DCI Louise Monroe to the village of Hawes in Yorkshire:

“Louise was an urbanite, she preferred the gut-thrilling sound of an emergency siren slicing through the night to the noise of country birds at dawn. Pub brawls, rackety roadworks, mugged tourists, the badlands on a Saturday night–they all made sense, they were all part of the huge, dirty, torn social fabric. There was a war raging out there in the city and she was part of the fight, but the countryside unsettled her because she didn’t know who the enemy was.

Allow me to digress momentarily: we were in Hawes last year; we visited the famous ropemakers, among other attractions, and I must say, we discerned there only beauty and tranquility. (Yes, I know – It’s “only” fiction!)

hawes1

hawes3

ropemaking-hawes

The ropeworks

Ropemaking

Ropemaking

The dogs of Hawes and their masters were especially welcoming

The dogs of Hawes and their masters were especially welcoming

hawes4

Okay – back to  the business at hand. With novels like When Will There Be Good News in which several stories are unfolding simultaneously, there’s always the risk that one story will be more compelling than the others. For me, that’s what happened as I was reading this novel. Dr. Hunter, her baby, her wonderful dog, her less-than-wonderful husband, and her child minder, the prescient and empathetic Reggie – they were the people I really cared about. Atkinson’s descriptions of their interactions were quite simply wonderful:

“Reggie had asked Dr. Hunter if she wanted more children, a brother or a sister for the baby, and she’d made a funny face and said, “Another baby?” as if that were an outlandish idea. And Reggie could see her point. This baby was everything, he was emperor of the world, he was the world.

Yes, I admit it: there is some marvelous writing in this novel. But at 388 pages, I thought it suffered from bloat. In addition, the body count was way too high. A terrible crime occurs early on, and there are  bodies liberally strewn along the way throughout. Hey – that’s not my “peaceable kingdom,” the British Isles that I love!

So, bottom line: do I recommend When Will There Be Good News? Yes, with the reservations expressed  above. And not with quite the same wholehearted enthusiasm with which I recommend Case Histories.

 

Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson

 

4 Comments

  1. The New York Times weighs in on the Best Books of 2008 « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] of a hundred! They are: Netherland by Joseph O’Neill, Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri,  When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson, and Nothing To Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes. Such a dreary result, after so […]

  2. The Art of the Mystery, Part One « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] of 2008, praise that was echoed by a number of DP’s other contributors. In a post entitled “I wanted to love them without reservation, but…,” I named this novel as one that did not quite live up to my expectations. For this reader,  […]

  3. “‘When the delicate mayfly of theory meets the speeding windscreen of evidence….’” « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] a prior post, I voiced my disappointment with Game Over, the predecessor to Fell Purpose. In contrast, this […]

  4. A Tale of Two Book Discussions; or, a ‘Dragon Tattoo’ immersion experience « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] setting in the Shetland region of northernmost Scotland. She also suggested Kate Atkinson, whose When Will There Be Good News opens with a scene of such shocking violence that I almost put the book down. I continued reading […]

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