One book – just one!

November 25, 2009 at 6:12 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

The directive issued to the Usual Suspects for our December meeting: “you can talk about one book, and one book only.” Gulp!

I have to say, I understand where our (fearless!) leaders are coming from on this. After all, there are people like me, who get going and can’t stop. My favorite mystery of 2009? Oh, dear, I’ve read so many great ones; let me see…

Provision has been made, I’m happy to say, for the overly prolix among us: We can put a list together and give it out at the meeting. This provision at once got me beavering away on my list. This is where I am so far on that little project:

The Water’s Edge by Karin Fossum                                                                                                                 
Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
The Fire Engine That Disappeared by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo
*Judge Dee at Work by Robert van Gulik
*Skeleton Hill by Peter Lovesey
*A Caribbean Mystery by Agatha Christie                                                                                          
*Turning Point by Peter Turnbull
*Piper on the Mountain by Ellis Peters                                                          
*The Marx Sisters and All My Enemies by Barry Maitland
The Suspect by L.R. Wright
The Private Patient by P.D. James
*Hit Parade and Hit and Run by Lawrence Block
Bleeding Heart Square by Andrew Taylor
About Face by Donna Leon
The Accomplice by Elizabeth Ironside                                                                                    
Chat and The Catch by Archer Mayor
The Birthday Present by Barbara Vine
August Heat by Andrea Camilleri                                                                           
*The Skeleton in the Closet by M.C Beaton
Ash Wednesday by Ralph McInerny
Thunder Bay by William Kent Krueger
*The Demon of Dakar by Kjell Eriksson
Pix by Bill James

I’ll probably just stop here.

The titles and/or authors I’d really like to talk about are designated with an asterisk. I’ve linked (both above and below) to those I’ve already written about in this space.

My paperback of A Caribbean Mystery is bristling with post-it flags. I wanted to note in particular Christie’s astute observations of human nature, which are freely intermingled with some rather disconcerting comments on race. Disconcerting but not mean-spirited, I think. All the same, this is the kind of stumbling block one encounters at times when reading the classics of the Golden Age. With the fiction of  Dorothy Sayers, one is more likely to encounter comments denigrating Jews. Yes I know – both writers are simply reflecting the attitudes prevalent in the time and place in which they lived. Still, some remarks, casually tossed off, can cut, even now.

For this, and other reasons, I think A Caribbean Mystery would make for a very interesting book discussion.

I’ve written briefly about The Marx Sisters, the first of Barry Maitland’s Brock and Kolla novels. A few weeks ago I read the third book in the series, All My Enemies. I really like this author and am very glad to have found yet another series of British police procedurals in which I can happily immerse myself. In  All My Enemies, Maitland takes us into the world of Britain’s regional theatre companies. As you would guess, it’s a fascinating place to visit – although I don’t know if I’d want to stay there for a prolonged period, what with professional jealousies and personal crises taking a constant and relentless toll on company members.

At any rate, I learned interesting bits of theatre lore – the process of “corpsing,” for instance: “‘Corpsing is where you do something to try to try to throw somebody else out of their character, like make them laugh in the middle of a death scene.'”

I enjoy Maitland’s polished prose and frequently memorable turns of phrase. Here is Kathy Kolla tracing a murder victim’s route to and from work:

“The suppressed violence of commuting struck her, of squeezing into a metal tube in one part of the city, of being crushed against sweaty strangers for a while and then abruptly ejected into a charging mob in another part.

As you may have already concluded, these novels are  very much in and of London, with the different neighborhoods (which after all began their existence as distinct villages) coming vividly to life.

As for the two titles by Lawrence Block, they make up part of a new series featuring Keller, a paid assassin. O horrible! you may shudder in revulsion. Don’t. They’re incredibly engrossing, and in the case of Hit Parade, very funny while being totally subversive. The tone is more somber in Hit and Run – so much so that I wasn’t sure I was going to like it. But I loved it. Keller gets himself into a predicament that caught me completely off guard. I can’t imagine how it can possibly be resolved. I’m dying to read the next book! And when I finished Hit and Run, I wanted desperately to talk to someone about it. So discussible? You bet! (BTW – Block’s reading of Hit Parade was highly enjoyable; Hit and Run, read by Richard Poe, equally so.)

Click here and scroll down to the bottom for two videos featuring Lawrence Block. In the first, he reads from Hit Parade; in the second, he explains how Keller came to be a series  character.

Ellis Peters is justly held in high esteem for her incomparable Brother Cadfael series. I have recently been listening to her other series featuring Inspector Felse. The books are narrated wonderfully by Simon Prebble, and they have been a revelation to me: fascinating, engrossing, and of course,  beautifully written. In The Piper on the Mountain, Peters gives full play to her longstanding affection for the land and people of  Czechoslovakia, as the country was called at the time of her writing (1966). Setting and atmosphere are a big plus in this novel, as is the presence of the Inspector’s son Dominic, an Oxford student. Dominic is such a lovable young man – a winning combination of resourcefulness, courage, and vulnerability – especially where comely young women are concerned.

I love it when a book introduces me to something entirely exotic and new. This novel introduced to the fujara, a large wind instrument native to Slovakia.  This is the instrument upon which the eponymous piper is playing.(Click here to hear it.) Not counting the Greek vases of beloved recent memory, the fujara is the niftiest new object to come into my life since the Towie Ball!

I’d like to mention The Demon of Dakar because I feel that Kjell Eriksson is not as well-known as his Scandinavian contemporaries – and he should be. Demon of Dakar moved me profoundly.

I cannot conclude this post without mentioning the handout given out at our November meeting. Primarily composed by Pauline, the resident scholar of the Usual Suspects, in anticipation of our end-of-year meeting and evaluation, it consists of a spreadsheet showing who presented what title and when, an analysis off the mystery subgenres in which we’ve been reading, a grid designed by Barbara that addresses issues such as gender of the author, gender of the protagonist, time period and/or setting, etc.

Finally, questions are posed such as:

Are there common threads to be discerned in this past year’s reading selections?

What kinds of books do we want to read in the coming year?

Did a book that you personally didn’t like still make for an interesting discussion? Did the discussion cause you to change your opinion of the book?

Have we neglected any areas or genres this year? Are we sufficiently diverse with regard to setting, nationality of author, time period, any other relevant categories?

There’s more, but those convey the refreshing erudition and  creativity of the enterprise. Professor Pauline and Professor Barbara: Well done,  both of you!

1 Comment

  1. Usual Suspects: a most stimulating evening! « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] first hour was devoted to book talking. Each Suspect was enjoined to talk about one title. I recently wrote that I was chafing slightly at this stricture, but in the event, it proved exactly the right decision. We only ran slightly over the hour […]

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