Mysteries, crime fiction, thrillers – whatever they may be called: three quick commendations

October 14, 2012 at 4:56 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

 

Defending Jacob By William Landay

Andy Barber is an assistant district attorney in Newton, Massachusetts. He has a string of prosecutorial triumphs to his credit and as a result, thinks rather well of himself. But in a classic ‘pride goeth’ scenario, Barber finds his world suddenly under assault when his son Jacob is accused of a heinous  crime.

The great strength of this novel lies in Landay’s painstaking description of the toll that this crisis takes on the family. The ghastly grind of simply getting from one day to the next is so vividly rendered, you can feel it in your gut. (It almost made my head ache.)

The prose is serviceable rather than beautiful, though Landay does have occasional flights of eloquence. Early in the novel, Andy Barber delivers himself of some profound thoughts concerning the judicial system:

A jury verdict is just a guess – a well-intentioned guess, generally, but you simply cannot tell fact from fiction by taking a vote. And yet, despite all that, I do believe in the power of the ritual. I believe in the religious symbolism, the black robes, the marble-columned courthouses like Greek temples. When we hold a trial, we are saying a mass. We  are praying together to do what is right and to be protected from danger, and that is worth doing whether or not our prayers are actually heard.

How these words must have curdled for him, as his family’s excruciating ordeal at the hands of that  vaunted justice system dragged on, for weeks and then months, of tedium alternating with dread.

Several readers  have remarked to me that Defending Jacob put them in mind of Rosellen Brown’s 1992 novel Before and After. That provocative work made for an excellent book discussion; I believe that Landay’s novel will do likewise.

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Involuntary Witness by Gianrico Carofiglio

I was so enamored of Carofiglio’s Temporary Perfections, and especially of the author’s protagonist, Avvocato Guerrieri,  that I decided to go back and read an earlier entry in the series. Involuntary Witness is the first Guido Guerrieri novel, and it’s the story of  a Senegalese peddler in the south of Italy who is accused of the murder of a nine-year-old boy.

Upon beginning Involuntary Witness, I was expecting to be completely absorbed from the get-go, just as I had been with Temporary Perfections. That did not happen. The novel’s pacing was initially sluggish, and I felt that there was too much of Guerrieri’s personal life, specifically his crumbling marriage and subsequent breakdown. But about half way through, the plot gained momentum, the emphasis changed, and the story took off. I was hooked! It helps, as it always does, that Carofiglio is a wonderful writer. In this passage, Guerrieri is caught off guard when he receives a gracious compliment from an unexpected source:

I didn’t know what to say. The things that came to my lips were all banalities, and I didn’t want to utter banalities. Whole worlds pass close by us and we don’t notice.

In the end, he simply says, “Thank you.”

Maxine Clarke, whose insightful reviews can be read on her blog Petrona and also at Euro Crime, has generous praise for the novels of Gianrico Caroiglio. She particularly recommends The Past Is a Foreign Country, a non-series  work by this distinguished Italian writer and jurist.

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The St. Zita Society by Ruth Rendell

Saint Who? It’s the logical first question – at least, for those of us who are not knowledgeable in this area. St. Zita is the patron saint of servants, and in this novel, the Society formed in her name is comprised of those who, in various capacities, serve the residents of Hexam Place in London.

Rendell is especially good at this kind of ensemble casting. At first, I had trouble keeping the characters straight: who they were and what they did for whom. But in a short space of time – it’s a short novel – they each emerge as distinctive individuals. (I was helped greatly by the schematic on the book’s end papers. As with maps and genealogies, I’m always grateful for these aids to understanding; I hope fervently that they are not omitted from e-book versions of works in which they appear.)

Both the residents and the help in Hexam Place are a decidedly diverse mix of personalities. Among them are Simon Jefferson, an earnestly liberal physician, his driver Jimmy, and Dex the gardener; Roland Albert and Damian, a snobbish and autocratic gay couple; Thea, who lives in the same building as Roland and Damian and, while not actually herself hired help, acts as such and is treated as such by them;  Princess Susan Hapsburg, who is neither a princess nor a Hapsburg (Oh, this is such vintage Rendell!) and June Caldwell, her servant morphed into companion, and a high-handed one at that.

At the center of this whirl of activity is the Still family at Number Seven Hexam Place.: Lucy and Preston and their three children. Lucy. distracted and addle-brained, seems largely absent from her own life – certainly from her maternal responsibilities, which she gladly abdicates to Rabia the nanny and Montserrat the au pair. Rabia, a devout Muslim who has lost both her husband and her children, is a particularly compelling character. Her devotion to baby Thomas is so intense as to be almost painful. Montserrat, on the other hand, has very little to do, with the crucial exception of facilitating the secret ingress and egress of Lucy’s lover into, and out of, Number Seven Hexam Place. These assignations occur while husband Preston is away at work – or supposedly away at work.

If this sounds like a potentially explosive situation – well, it is. But the explosion, when it happens, takes an unexpected form – and it’s just a preview of further shocking events looming just beyond the visible horizon. As often happens in Rendell’s fiction, characters acting on insufficient information – including one with a thoroughly warped mindset –  are making decisions that lead, inevitably, to disaster.

The St. Zita Society is not a full-fledged masterpiece on the order of, say, Judgement in Stone or A Fatal Inversion (written as Barbara Vine). Nevertheless, its near flawless execution made it a joy to read. As any regular visitor to this site will attest, it is nearly impossible for me to  evaluate objectively a work by Ruth Rendell. Still, I do recommend this novel. It has the usual Rendell hallmarks of elegant plot construction, penetrating psychological insight, and sly wit.

2 Comments

  1. Barbara said,

    Please give me the names of British/Irish/Scottish mysteries. Sincerely,
    Barbara

  2. Roberta Rood said,

    Hi, Barbara,
    Which mysteries are you referring to, exactly? I’ve written about the Scottish mysteries of Alexander McCall Smith,and Ian Rankin. There’s a terrific Scottish mystery from the 1970s called LAIDLAW by William McIlvanney. I’m not as up on the Irish, but I can’t get enough of the British! (See my posts on the British police procedurals.)
    Hope this helps…?

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