The Talented Mr. Varg by Alexander McCall Smith

September 20, 2020 at 9:10 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  I have just finished The Talented Mr. Varg, sequel to The Department of Sensitive Crimes. I thoroughly enjoyed it, just as I did its predecessor.

In this, the second entry in a new series, Ulf Varg pursues several  cases of possible faithlessness. These cases may also involve legal infractions; in one instance, even blackmail. While all this is going on, Ulf and his neighbor, Mrs. Högfors, are taking solicitous care of Martin, Ulf’s dog. Martin is prone to fits of depression, but has been steadily improving while in the care of a kindly veterinarian.

While all this is transpiring, Ulf must constantly attend to his  feelings for his partner Anna. She’s married, and has two daughters who are champion swimmers. He refuses to be party to the disruption of this comfortable domesticity. Nevertheless…

He rose from his desk glancing at Anna as ho did so. She looked up and caught his glance, and smiled. It was a moment of pure  bliss. Anna was everything. She was decency, courtesy, reliability, motherhood, Sweden, and love. All of that; and all of that. And she was somebody else’s. She was that too, perhaps above all those other things.

There is a sweet sadness – a sad sweetness? – in this novel, as in the numerous others by Alexander McCall Smith. It keeps them from being saccharine or sentimental. I was searching for a term to describe this quality, and I think I’ve found it: poignancy. The Oxford English dictionary defines this word as “The quality of evoking a keen sense of sadness or regret.

I recently led a discussion of The Department of Sensitive Crimes with my fellow crime fiction lovers in the Usual Suspects group. We mulled over the question of whether to classify it as a cozy mystery.    We decided that although some of the characteristics of that subgenre were present in the novel, it nevertheless featured other aspects that led to deeper waters. To wit: This is a thought that Ulf ponders as a session with his psychotherapist draws to a close:

Freud, he remembered, died of a disease that affected his jaw. Alone in London, with enemies circling, that illuminating intelligence, liberating in its perspicacity, flickered and died, leaving us to face the darkness and the creature that inhabited it.

For the record, Sigmund Freud died in September of 1939, of cancer of the jaw. He was 83 years old. My researches into the life and interests of Alexander McCall Smith revealed that he is an avid reader of philosophy.


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I’ve been doing tons of reading – really!

September 13, 2020 at 3:12 pm (Book review, books)

I just haven’t been writing about it. I shall try to remedy that state of affairs, if only partly.

First, the most challenging:

This is from the August 11 New York Times review by Mark Oppenheimer:

In 2012, the Harvard scholar Karen King announced what she believed to be an extraordinary discovery: a second-century papyrus fragment with a text hinting that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,” as it became known, tapped into a plot point from “The Da Vinci Code” that had already helped King’s academic treatise on Mary Magdalene become a best seller with a mass audience.

That about sums it up. I can only add that behind this summary there is a huge amount of information concerning the dating of papyrus fragments, the deciphering of Coptic language passages, and lots more arcane data that, for  this reader at least, was too much to take in and make sense of. Along with this, there was a large cast of characters, mainly experts in specialties of which I for one was barely aware. At every turn, the book threatened to become unreadable. It was only through sheer force of will that I made my way through to the end.

I should mention, though, that midway through this weighty and solemn tome, there’s a totally unexpected segue into the doings of a Florida couple who are part of a fun loving swingers group, complete with explicit video footage. “Southwest Florida has a vibrant swingers’ community,” author Ariel Sabar informs us. He enlarges on the subject  thus:

Couples can get to know one another at brick-and-mortar clubs with names like Eyz Wide Shut, Master’s Quest and the Woodshed. In one online forum, Fritz’s wife mentioned performing with a well-known scenester named Art Hammer, who was featured in a VICE channel TV miniseries on “the lifestyle: the insatiable wives and their cuckolded white husbands….”

Well, you get the idea. In the midst of this hyper-intellectual tome, this section was a startling presence. All I could think was, Who knew? Certainly not I, a former Floridian myself. Needless to say, the pace of reading picked up considerably at this juncture! But be assured, things settled back down in short order. And the pace became arduous once again.

If this is an area of interest for you, then  by all means, read Veritas. Or, if you just wish to push your brain a bit. Otherwise, like me, you might be a bit overwhelmed.

I have to add that Ariel Sabar did a prodigious amount of research. I deeply admire the effort. Also, Karen King is an interesting person to learn about. I was glad to get to know her, through Sabar’s unrelenting labors in Veritas.

Ariel Sabar

Karen King


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‘…one of California’s wildest places–mountain lions, bighorn sheep, abundant reptiles, birds, eye-popping wildflowers, and desert-dwelling arachnids, including scorpions.’ – Then She Vanished by T. Jefferson Parker

September 5, 2020 at 9:11 pm (Book review, books, California, Family, Mystery fiction)

This is Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California’s largest state park and one of the most beautiful, otherworldly places I have ever seen.

I was there many years ago, with my sister-in-law Joan. We drove there from Solana Beach, just north of San Diego. I recall the drive in the mountains as being breathtaking, even harrowing. Joan was doing most of the driving. At one point, she asked if I’d like to take over for a little while. Timid soul that I am, I assented, with much trepidation. But as soon as we go going again, I was loving it – it felt like flight! The huge blue sky of southern California lay open before us. A small pink cloud the shape of a sombrero hovered at the horizon. Oh, I can never forget this.

Upon arriving, we checked in at La Casa del Zorro, a lovely spa resort nestled serenely in the desert landscape. We shared a room; it looked much like this one:

I remember Joan asking to borrow my mousse (both of us having super curly  hair). We hiked a gentle uphill grade. We went to the Visitors’ Center, which delighted me with its large selection of books.

We stayed for two nights at ‘The House of the Fox.’

So why am I thinking about this excursion right now? I just finished a mystery/thriller by T. Jefferson Parker called Then She Vanished. Parker is a veteran writer in the field; I’ve read and enjoyed several of his older titles. This one is part of new series featuring a private investigator named Roland Ford. These novels are set in northern San Diego County, where pretty much all of the action of this particular novel takes place. A very crucial part of the story is set in the desert town of Borrego Springs, home to Anza_Borrego Desert State Park. The description in the title of this post is a quote from the novel,  courtesy of Roland Ford.

Then She Vanished is, unsurprisingly, about a woman who goes missing, but it’s about more than that. There’s a terrorist group on the loose, called the Chaos Committee. Some of their pronouncements sound eerily like what we’re currently hearing from extremist groups. Their actions are horrific. So this is the backdrop for the search for one Natalie Strait. Her husband Dalton does not have faith in the efforts of the police, so he has hired Roland Ford to help in locating Natalie.

Parker is a wonderful writer who has lived in Southern California his whole life. So he’s ideally positioned to render this setting vividly. As a person who has spent time there and who loves the place – especially the desert, I’m grateful to him.

Joan has been gone for a little over three years now, and I miss her very much. A kinder, more  genuinely goodhearted person would be hard to find.


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