Four mysteries, and one reader yearning for a page turner

January 10, 2012 at 7:26 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

This was the original title of this post:

‘Catherine the Great vs Guido Brunetti; or an illustration of the way in which suspense is inherent in the narrative, both its presence and is absence being of a surprising nature’

I don’t know if this title will make it past the draft stage of this post….Does it make any sense at all, I wonder?….

Some days later…in which time the above title has been unceremoniously scrapped.

Alors – let me explain. I’ve just read four mysteries in fairly quick succession: Well – as quick as possible, since the pacing of each of them varied from, shall we say stately, to downright glacial.

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     Karin Fossum is an author I very much esteem, and I enjoyed Bad Intentions, although “enjoy” is possibly not the appropriate word. Once again, the reader is faced with the unrelieved bleakness of much Scandinavian crime fiction, and once again one is reminded of critic Jake Kerridge’s observation: ” The closest most fictional Scandinavian detectives get to making a joke is to point out that man is born only to die.” Bad  Intentions is about unremitting grief and the refusal to take responsibility for one’s actions. It s about weak willed young people with no firm sense of morality. They drift into evil deeds and then can’t understand how they arrived at such a terrible place:

How quickly it can change, the life we think has been marked out for us. We start the journey with good intentions, the gift our parents bequeathed us. And then someone snaps their fingers and we find ourselves sidetracked; we end up in a foreign country.

Up close, we see the corrosive effect of guilt on sensitive souls. Sensitive – and weak. The only thing that moves with any speed is the characters’ increasing sense of hopelessness.

Karin Fossum writes beautifully. Bad Intentions has its poetic moments. But scarcely a ray of light  penetrates that northern gloom.

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     Drawing Conclusions was yet another slow mover. There are always pleasures to be found in Donna Leon’s Venice, even while the author points out flaws in the governance of her adopted city. I always enjoy the lively exchanges that occur at mealtimes in the Brunetti household. Children Raffi and Chiara are engaging without being cloyingly sweet. Paola the fiery intellectual always adds spice to the mix. Brunetti himself is something of a peacekeeper though no pushover in that role.

But in Drawing Conclusions, I didn’t get nearly enough time with the family. I got more than enough time with the dramatis personae involved in the crime under investigation. The idiocy of Brunetti’s superiors is verging on the cliche. The crime itself never really pulled me into the narrative.

Like Karin Fossum, Donna Leon writes beautifully. I kept wishing she were writing about people I cared about – or cared more about.

There is one scene in this novel that is so deeply felt that it moved me to tears. Commissario Guido Brunetti has been interviewing one Dottor Grandesso, an elderly man in a care home, or casa di cura, run by an order of religious sisters. As it turns out, this man has almost nothing of substance to contribute to the inquiry at hand. But while they discourse, he is fighting for breath, fighting for life, and fighting for dignity and repose. In addition, he is desperate to stay out of the hospital. After an episode of extreme agitation, Dottor Grandesso finally lapses into a slumbrous state:

For an instant, Brunetti feared that the man had died before his eyes, he helpless to prevent it; then he heard another of those long breaths, but softer. He sat motionless and watched until he was sure the doctor was asleep. As quietly as he could, Brunetti got to his feet and backed towards the door. He went into the corridor, leaving the door open so that the sleeping man could be seen.
The corridor was empty; the clink of plates and the rushing sound of water came from behind the closed door of the kitchen. Brunetti leaned against the wall. He put his head back until it touched the wall and stood like that for a few minutes.

I wonder if t here is an investigator in all of crime  fiction with as deep a well of empathy and compassion as  that so consistently evinced by Commissario Guido Brunetti….

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  Black Diamond is the name of a highly prized truffle. It is also the title of Martin Walker’s latest Bruno Courreges mystery. I knew I’d want to read this novel, as I was so captivated by Walker’s depiction of  life in France’s Perigord region in The Dark Vineyard. Walker works a similar magic in this novel. Here’s Bruno, Chief of Police in the village of Saint-Denis, making a venison casserole:

Gigi [Bruno’s basset hound] looked hopeful at his feet as Bruno took down the large ham that hung from the beam that supported the kitchen roof. He sliced off some of the dense fat with the meat, chopped it into lardons, tossed them into his big casserole dish, and lit the gas. He pulled down six shallots from the string that hung from the beam and began to peel them. The roast was ready, and he and Gigi ate slice and slice alike before he began cutting the venison into rough cubes.

It gets better:

From his larder he removed a large glass jar of the mushrooms he had dried in September. Then he began to peel heads of garlic. When the venison was well browned, he sprinkled flour onto the meat to soak up all the juices and then tipped in the shallots and added half a dozen cloves of garlic, salt and pepper. He took a bottle of the Bergerac red he bought for everyday drinking and poured a splash into the pan where the onions had been and grated what was left of the baguette into the glaze. He then took a fat blood sausage, made from last year’s pig, squeezed out the rich, black contents from its skin and added them to the pan, crumbling the sausage meat that would help thicken the sauce, and then scraped the rest into the casserole. He added the rest of the bottle of wine, added the dried mushrooms and closed the lid.

Imagine the rich aromas filling the house! Mon Dieu!!

These elaborate preparations are for a dinner given in memory of a dear friend. The ceremonial meal itself is an intensely vivid and moving scene.

It seems churlish to criticize a novel that offers such riches, but detailed descriptions like the one above, delightful though they may be, do slow the pace of the novel considerably.

Black Diamond deals with a growing problem concerning the quality of the truffles sold in French markets. Buyers at these markets are not only private individuals but also representatives of high end restaurants, Lately there have been allegations that the batches of truffles have been adulterated with inferior products, probably originating in China.

Martin Walker is writing about an actual crisis. Large amounts of money are involved. As it happens, Sixty Minutes had a segment on this subject this past Sunday night. Click here for the video.

(And for the record: Gigi the basset hound is a superb truffle hunter.)

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  For me, the biggest disappointment in this group of mysteries was A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny. Generally speaking, I’m a great fan of this series, but for me, this novel really dragged. It felt padded; the plot seemed overly convoluted. It did have some of this author’s invariably pleasing stylistic touches;  moreover, I have become very fond of Armand Gamache and his team. In fact, I am very curious as to whether something will develop between Gamache’s trusted second in command, Jean Guy Beauvoir, and a certain young woman. I found myself much more interested in that tantalizing possibility than I was in the main thrust of the plot.

I thought Bury Your Dead, the predecessor to this book, was superb. It made me want to pack my bags and head for Quebec City immediatement! A Trick of the Light never grabbed me that way.

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Having said this, I really do feel that all of these writers are in the main producing wonderful novels. I absolutely plan to return each of these four series. And I’m willing to entertain the notion that my problem had more to do with my own mood than I’ve hitherto acknowledged. I remain amazed, though, that I was having more of a “glued to the page” experience with Catherine the Great than I was with the crime fiction I was reading at the same time. (I am still having that experience. I am almost finished with Robert K. Massie’s stupendous biography. I deeply regret that it must come to an end.)

Finally, it’s worth considering what are the elements that make for a page turner. Some would say that chief among these is a plot that keeps you on the edge of your seat.  I agree – that is one factor, but certainly not the only one. and in fact, some fast moving narratives sacrifice depth of characterization for swiftness of plot. In my view, the greatest suspense is created by presenting a terrific story populated by richly drawn, deeply interesting characters. These qualities can inhere in any literary genre, in fiction or nonfiction. They are present in abundance in the life story of Catherine the Great,  a German princess who became Empress of Russia almost by force of will, not to mention great audacity and courage, and continued to display these attributes throughout her long and turbulent reign. 

Setting is also vitally important. Russia fascinates and mystifies, as it has done down through the centuries. I love a book that attempts to penetrate a mystery, even if the author does not quite succeed – perhaps especially if the author does not quite succeed. I love a novel with great dialog; equally, I love eavesdropping on the ruminations of a first rate mind. I am once more reminded of each of these pleasures as I return to Edinburgh via the latest entry in the Alexander McCall Smith‘s Isabel Dalhousie series. Already we’ve had Isabel thinking deep thoughts about the nature and purpose of art, conversing with a new acquaintance about the role of religion in contemporary life, and sparring with her housekeeper Grace about who should iron Jaimie’s  shirts (Jaimie being Isabel’s live-in lover, father of her child, and soon-to-be husband) All this and much more, and I’m only on page 57. 

I picked up The Forgotten Affairs of Youth two days ago and have been happily immersed therein ever since. Eureka! I have found my page turner, just as I thought I would.

3 Comments

  1. Brad Geagley said,

    Love these reviews! Thanks for sharing.
    Brad

  2. Susan said,

    i have Bury your Dead to read next, in the Louise Penny series. I am just about to start reading the Donna Leon series. I tried one Karin Fossum, and while it was enjoyable, it didn’t grab me the way other Scandinavian mysteries have.

    Good reviews, and thoughts on what makes a good mystery read. I agree that plot and character have to move hand-in-hand in any kind of book, for there to be a ‘must keep reading’ feel to it. DId you try The Broken Shore by Peter Temple? that was a very good mystery, one of the best I read last year. I have Truth by him to read next, and it is supposed to be better. Just in case you were looking for another page-turner!

  3. kathy d. said,

    Thanks for these reviews. I love Guido and Paola Brunetti’s stories and dialogue, especially Paola’s barbs. The scenes in the early morning, when Paola gets irritated at Guido’s awakening her too early click with her, especially her sarcasm.

    One thing I liked about Drawing Conclusions is the theme of long love between two people, or of one for another, which is a motive for crimies. Guido identifies with and understands an elderly character who deeply loves his partner, so much that it affects his judgment on a case. But what I enjoyed was Guido’s thinking about his love for Paola and of them growing older together. That was very touching.

    I want to start Martin Walker’s series; it’s on my TBR list. I must do that this year! Karin Fossum’s books don’t grab me the way other Nordic writers do. I read the first two of Louise Penny’s and that was sufficient, but I may read Bury Your Dead, which has gotten great acclaim. The Isabel Dalhousie series by Alexander McCall Smith: I’ve read two but don’t think I’ll venture further. The books don’t grab me.

    And on Catherine the Great, I don’t know. I get very peeved at all of the Russian royalty for their mistreatment of the Jewish people and other poor people, and I don’t see them sympathetically at all.

    I will ad that Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series is wonderful. Just finished The House at Sea’s End. Sue Grafton’s V is for Vengeance is a great book to read to relax and distract. Sara Paretsky has a new book out. Kerry Greenwood has a new Corinna Chapman (of Melbourne) book out.
    So do Linwood Barclay and Michael Connelly.

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