Crime fiction backlog: some good ones here…

March 5, 2010 at 2:14 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

There’s nothing to do at this juncture but to tackle them as a group – so here goes:

In January, I needed a nice slim paperback to take on a quick trip, so I grabbed A Sea of Troubles by Donna Leon. All I knew about it was that it was a Guido Brunetti novel and that it was by one of my favorite authors.

Donna Leon

Not only did it not disappoint, but I think it’s one of her best – right up there with these:

In A Sea of Troubles, Signorina Elettra goes undercover in Pellestrina, a long, narrow spit of land between the Adriatic Sea and the Lagoon of Venice. (A map is provided, something I always appreciate.) A murder has occurred there, but Elettra’s undertaking in the matter is unofficial.  She’s investigating on her own time while staying with relations in the area. It’s a situation fraught with danger, and Commissario Guido Brunetti, the (official) investigating officer, is frantic with worry – so  much so that he is forced to confront the nature of his feelings for the mercurial and hitherto rather opaque departmental secretary/researcher. (His wife, the fiery Paola, is not best pleased either.) Meanwhile, Elettra’s own feelings, usually so carefully guarded, take a wholly unexpected turn during her brief sojourn in Pellestrina.

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Dark Mirror by Barry Maitland opens with the death of a beautiful young woman. Marion Summers, studious and conscientious, collapses in the London Library and dies shortly thereafter. At first, murder is not even suspected, but further investigation reveals that Marion was in fact poisoned. How and why was this cunning crime carried out? Kathy Kolla’s brief is to find the answer to these deeply troubling questions.

Maitland’s prose and plotting are both elegant. He can also be quite witty on occasion. Here, he’s supposedly quoting another party as to the actual meaning of the famous bet-hedging verdict unique to Scottish law, Not Proven: “Not guilty, but don’t do it again.”

The Brock and Kolla series – David Brock is Kathy Kolla’s mentor on the force – hit the ground running with The Marx Sisters. ( This marvelous entertainment, first published in 1994, is now back in print thanks to the good offices of the folks at Felony & Mayhem Press.) Dark Mirror is the fourth novel I’ve read in this series. As with the Guido Brunetti novels and Ruth Rendell’s Wexford procedurals, I intend (eventually) to go back and read them all.

Barry Maitland

Currently living in Australia, Barry Maitland, writer and architect, was born in Scotland.

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There was already plenty of buzz among the Usual Suspects concerning the fifth entry in Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series by the time I got around to reading it. The Brutal Telling is rich in atmosphere, provocative observations, a host of varied characters, and the distinctive, verging-on-poetry writing style that is such a distinguishing mark of these novels.

The action  begins with a body being found in the bistro owned and run by Olivier and his partner Gabri.  Both claim ignorance of the victim. Gabri is being completely truthful; Olivier is not. From this fatal incident springs a whole host of ills.

This series has two great strengths. First, Louise Penny is a terrific writer with a unique and refreshing style. Her love of language is reflected in the original way she makes use of it. Here’s an instance I particularly liked. One of the characters in Brutal Telling is a young man of Czech parentage named Havoc Parra. The Parras, who live in the countryside near the village of Three Pines, own several dogs.

Here, Mrs. Parra is  searching for her son:

‘Havoc!’ his mother cried, letting the dogs slip out as she called into the woods.

(Well, okay, you might not be as big a fan of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as I am, so you may not recognize the oblique reference to my favorite speech from that play, ‘O pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth.’ Here’s how it concludes:

And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate’ by his side come hot from Hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice
Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war,
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.—  )

The above quote is an instance of Penny’s playful, trickster aspect. but she is likewise superb at setting a scene. Here Clara Morrow, a painter of distinction, has invited friends into her home so they can see her newly completed works:

‘There, lit only by candles, was Clara’s art. Or at least three large canvases, propped on easels. Gamache felt suddenly light-headed, as though he’d traveled back to the time of Rembrandt, da Vinci, Titian. Where art was viewed either by daylight or candlelight. Was this how the Mona Lisa was first seen? The Sistine Chapel? By firelight? Like cave drawings.

The Francophone ambience that pervades Penny’s novels is a delight. In its own way, rural Quebec is as exotic for readers – at least, for this reader – as, for instance, the Laos of Colin Cotterill’s Siri Paiboun series. I love the scattering of French phrases throughout the text.

Toward the end of  the novel, Chief Inpector Gamache’s investigation takes him to the Queen Charlotte Islands off the northwest coast of British Columbia. The purpose of  his journey is to interview members of the Haida tribe. This is a radically different environment for both Gamache and the reader, and Penny renders it beautifully. I felt as though this part of the story had been given to me as a  gift, by this gifted and generous author.

Louise Penny

All of this said, I recall being rather frustrated by The Brutal Telling‘s brutally convoluted plot (it’s been a while since I read it), and ultimately being confused by the ending. This is not a sensation I enjoy. Rather, I like to finish a novel with a sense of the rightness of the  conclusion, whether it is happy, sad, or even open-ended (this last option brought off brilliantly by Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall).

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The three above mentioned novels are all by authors I have read and enjoyed previously. The Crossing Places is by Elly Griffiths, an author new to me. This is, in fact, her first mystery (though not her first novel, according to the brief bio on the jacket flap).

Elly Griffiths

First of all, Griffiths has given us a very winning protagonist in Ruth Galloway. Ruth lives adjacent to the Saltmarsh, a windswept, desolate place that nonetheless has its own mysterious appeal. At least, it does for Ruth. For one thing, it is a site that yields riches to a forensic archeologist like herself.

The novel begins with Ruth being summoned to the Saltmarsh by the local police. They want to know the approximate age of some bones that have been unearthed there. Are they of concern to antiquarians and historians? or to present-day law-enforcement? In the event, there prove to be two sets of bones, providing matter for both interest  groups.

The Crossing Places is a novel rich in atmosphere. Here, Ruth is reflecting on the remains of a henge found at the Saltmarsh some years ago. Norwegian archeologist Erik Anderssen, her mentor and tutor, had been instrumental in making this momentous discovery:

‘Ruth remembers how eerie it had looked in that first morning light, like a shipwreck that had risen silently to the surface, the wooden posts forming a  sombre ring, black against the sky. She remembers Erik telling fireside stories about Norse water spirits: the Nixes, shape-shifters who lure unwary travellers into the water; the Nokke, river sprites who sing at dawn and dusk.

Ruth quickly becomes involved in the mystery of a missing child. (Rather too quickly, I thought; I could clearly detect the plot machinery being moved into place to facilitate this development.) Another, older mystery, also involving a child’s disappearance, hovers in the background. The investigating officer, DCI Harry Nelson, is likewise hovering in Ruth’s vicinity. Yes, he needs her expertise – something else, as well?

But mostly, this novel is haunted by the brooding Saltmarsh, which yields up its secrets with the greatest reluctance. This is very evocative, chill-inducing stuff. In her acknowledgments, Elly Griffiths states that she drew inspiration from Seahenge by Francis Pryor.

(You will note in the block quote above the author’s use of the present tense. I’m trying to decide if I’m encountering  this usage more often than heretofore in the fiction I’ve read lately.  It’s not my favorite narrative device, though I thought works flawlessly in Wolf Hall.)

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In both A Sea of Troubles and The Crossing Places, the action climaxes with a raging storm. Now I liked both of these novels very much, but that’s a plot device that skates perilously close to overuse, IMHO. At any rate, that’s it for my mystery world, for the time being anyway. Happy reading, all!

6 Comments

  1. Kay said,

    Roberta, thanks for sharing about these 4 books. I read and very much enjoyed The Crossing Places recently. I have her next book in the series on the way to me. I have been saving The Brutal Telling back for a while. I want to read it, but I don’t want to have to wait so long for the next book. I’ll treat myself soon. I have not read from the other two series, but have good intentions.

  2. Pauline Cohen said,

    Roberta,

    I have very mixed feelings about The Brutal Telling. It’s frustrating for me to comment on the book without revealing pertinent information about the plot. Of course I won’t do that, but I do think the book takes a completely unexpectedl turn in the way the plot is resolved and I wasn’t happy about it. I hope I haven’t said too much.

    Pauline

    • Roberta Rood said,

      You haven’t said too much, Pauline. I tried to indicate in my comments on the book that I was not completely happy with it either. Like you, my reservations had mainly to do with the plot. I did feel that all the other elements that make her books a pleasure to read were also present in this one.

  3. Kathy D. said,

    Thanks for this.

    I liked The Crossing Places a lot, love the Ruth Galloway character and the sense of place and history. Learned a bit, too.

    The Leon book was very good. She has a new one coming out in April, A Question of Belief.

    Keep meaning to read the Maitland series, must do so.

    I read two books by Louise Penny, then I got somewhat tired of the characters and place, though not of her detective. May try this one, although this seems complicated.
    May try it.

    Actually, read a nonmystery, I Shudder by playwright Paul Rudnick. It is a riot.

  4. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] – Simenon The Ghost – Robert Harris Blue Heaven – C.J. Box Suffer the Little Children, A Sea of Troubles, Girl of His Dreams – Donna Leon Careful Use of Compliments and novels in The No.1 Ladies’ […]

  5. Newsweek’s book issue (August 2, 2010) « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] friend.” My first response to this was the following: Donna Leon, Donna Leon, and Donna Leon. But no – there are, of course others: Alexander McCall Smith, both the No.1 Ladies Detective […]

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