Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America, by Jared Cohen – a Discussion with the AAUW Readers

September 19, 2019 at 9:15 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, History)

  Okay, I admit it – I’ve complained about book groups being burdensome and borderline irrelevant. I want to read what I want to read, when I want to read it! Thus have I cried out, the lament of a fanatical reader.

But I have to say, there are times when book groups more than justify their existence. In fact, they can be just plain great. I attended just such a discussion this morning.

First off, Jared Cohen’s Accidental Presidents was so filled with fascinating revelations that it was a joy to read. Cohen’s book covered eight presidents who assumed office upon a president’s death. Four of the fatalities were due to assassinations; the others were due to illness of the Chief Executive.

John Tyler survived  a catastrophic explosion aboard the warship USS Princeton. The young woman he was in love with was also on board, escorted by her father. Her mother had been withholding permission for her to marry him; however, after losing her husband, she relented, and they were soon wed. So: a poignant love story  emerged from a scene of horror. (Tyler became president upon the death of William Henry Harrison.)

One must, of course, relive the killing of Lincoln and the evils that resulted from Andrew Johnson’s ill disguised sympathy for the defeated Southerners.

I was saddened once again to read of the death of James A. Garfield, surely one of the most honorable, decent, and compassionate men ever to serve the public. He never even wanted to be president, yet chose this path when his party and his friends convinced him that he was needed. Anyone who is interested in what happened to Garfield needs to read The Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard. I never thought a history book could break my heart, but that one did.

There was so much more: Millard Fillmore, who succeeded Zachary Taylor; Theodore Roosevelt, who succeeded William McKinley; Calvin Coolidge, who succeeded Warren G. Harding: Harry Truman, who succeeded Franklin D. Roosevelt; and finally, the great tragedy of our own era, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the pursuant struggles of Lyndon Johnson. Stories about each of these critical moments in U.S. history had me mesmerized.

Page after page of Accidental Presidents astonished me. I could not help wondering: Was I ever actually taught American history? Obviously not  in a meaningful way, or a way that stayed with me, or a way that awakened to me to the fact that this subject could be so riveting.

It was evident from the reactions of the participants in the discussion that they shared my enthusiasm for this book and its subject matter. The amount of knowledge brought to bear, the questions raised, the points brought to light, all made for an exceptionally stimulating session. Jean’s insights about the South, gleaned from her granddaughters’ experiences; Phyllis’s memories of growing up in Kentucky, Peggy’s perspective as a person of Korean heritage, Doris’s first hand knowledge of the workings of the Federal government – these and many more  contributions flowed freely. I sat there thinking, What an exceptional, and exceptionally impressive, group of women!

I felt deeply fortunate and grateful to be among them.

Presidents John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester A. Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Gerald Ford. (Ford was not included in Jared Cohen’s book.)

 

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‘The night was no longer silent; she could hear the seven billion people who lived on this earth.’ – The Whisperer by Karin Fossum

September 16, 2019 at 7:33 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  This was a tough one.

Tough to get through, I mean. The problem was not excessive violence or a byzantine plot. There was, in fact, very little violence – at least until the long-awaited crime actually takes place. And by that time, I was actually relieved. This is because the plot had been moving with all due sluggishness.  In fact, it often seemed not to be moving at all.

Instead, we were spending page after page delving into the mind of one Ragna Riegel, a middle aged woman who suffers from an unusual and poignant disability, brought about by a surgeon’s error. Ragna lives alone in the house she grew up in. She has a day job in a retail establishment called Europris. It’s nothing special, but it pays the bills and provides her with a modicum of human contact.

Ragna Riegel dwells in an almost painful obscurity. The one bright light in her life is her son, but he has gone to live and work in Berlin and her contact with him is very sporadic.

We’re delivered from an almost relentless introspection by excerpts of Ragna’s lengthy interviews with Inspector Sejer. Sejer is the continuing character in Fossum’s series. He’s appealing and conscientious, if somewhat low key; his dog Frank, a small but portly Shar Pei, provides the sole comic relief in this downbeat narrative.

I’ve read seven or eight books in this series. Obviously I liked  them, or I wouldn’t have kept coming back for more. But I must admit, I found The Whisperer challenging.   Jake Kerridge, who reviews  crime fiction for Britain’s Telegraph, wrote an article several years ago with the rather piquant title, “Efficient Mystery with Light Emotional Wallowing.” In it, he opined that “The closest most fictional Scandinavian detectives get to making a joke is to point out that man is born only to die…” This novel partakes of that melancholy world view.

One of the reasons I stick with Inspector Sejer is that these books invariably contain some striking passages of prose. They’re not necessarily spectacular, but in their quiet way they make you stop and think.

She looked up at  the black sky over the town. They all believed that it stretched on for eternity, whereas in reality, the atmosphere was as thin as a bride’s veil and the sky stopped just beyond the tallest skyscraper, or after twenty minutes in a rocket, Twenty minutes, she thought, and then nothing. Beyond was just dark and cold, and beneath the veil, tiny people lived inside a glass cloche.

(One must of course credit the seemingly meticulous translation from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson.)

Do I recommend The Whisperer? Yes, but cautiously. The ponderousness of the plot could understandably defeat some readers. Yet in some ways, it’s a  rather profound work. And there does emerge, toward the end, a small ray of hope for redemption, for Ragna and her constricted world.

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O Baltimore! Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman

August 30, 2019 at 1:15 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

I had fun reading this novel, mainly due to all the references to sixties era Baltimore, and especially to its Jewish population. Several Yiddish expressions appear in the text: shidduch (matchmaking – see Fiddler on the Roof) and shanda (a shame or a scandal) are examples. Mention is made of Chizuk Amuno Congregation, which in the time frame of the novel was getting ready to move out of the city to a new building in Baltimore County. The Gilbert branch of my family have been members of this congregation for many years.

Here’s the building:

The distinctive shape of this edifice has been likened to that of a certain marine mammal “(very like a whale,” as Hamlet would have said). This makes me think of my Uncle Hal, of blessed memory, who frequently referred to Chizuk Amuno “a whale of a schul.” (‘Schul’ or ‘shul’ denotes a synagogue, or any Jewish place of worship. Yiddish is written using the Hebrew alphabet. For more on the language, click here.)

Numerous other Baltimore streets and place names appear in this novel. One of the more curious street names is Auchentoroly Terrace. According to  the Baltimore Sun:

The word derives from an old estate, Auchentorlie, that once stood nearby. The name has a Scottish origin and refers to a flower similar to heather.

There are two Baltimore places that figure importantly in this narrative: the lake in Druid Hill Park and Cylburn Arboretum. They are directly involved in the two fatalities that are crucial to The Lady in the Lake. 

The William Wallace monument in Druid Hill Park [Click to enlarge]

There’s a nice page devoted to this park on the Park School website. This distinguished Baltimore private school also figures in Lady in the Lake.

Cylburn Arboretum [Click to enlarge]

Both of the fatalities referenced  above were inspired by actual crimes.  Lippman has used this device before, most effectively in her award winning novel from 2008, What the Dead Know.

(To read an article about the actual crimes that inform Lady in the Lake, click here.)

With regard to the plots of her novels, Lippman insists on the difference between ‘based on’ as opposed to ‘inspired by.’ She clarifies the distinction in this video:

In Lady in the Lake, Laura Lippman weaves an intriguing tale. Early on, Madeline Schwartz, the main character who’s in search of gainful employment, becomes a newspaper reporter. This is a world that Lippman knows well and she portrays it in a convincing and entertaining manner. However, I have to say that the way in which she’s chosen to structure her narrative made for a challenging reading experience. In particular, in the earlier sections, there’s a frequent switching out of first person narrators that, at least for this reader, seriously impeded the flow of the story. Some of these narrators were of only tangential importance to the tale being told. Why did we have to hear from them? I got impatient with this technique, and was relieved that as I turned the pages, these interruptions became less frequent and the narrative became more tightly focused.

At one point, Madeline – pretty much always called ‘Maddie’ – inveigles her way into the morgue in order to see the body of one of the victims. It is, predictably, a harrowing experience.

Nature was vicious. When Marilyn Monroe had died four years ago, people had said she was undone by her age, her fading looks, that she wanted to leave a  beautiful corpse. No one leaves a beautiful corpse.

I had a strange and startling experience myself while reading this novel. At one point, in the course of her independent investigation, Maddie visits a medium with a bad cold. She thinks to herself, ‘Madame Claire has a cold’ and is immediately pleased at her ability to come with this allusion to T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” At the same time, she’s frustrated because she cannot come up with the name of the clairvoyant in Eliot’s poem.

I have not sat down and read all the way through that poem in a very long time. But as soon as I read  the above passage, I whispered softly, ‘Madame Sosotris? No, Madame Sosostris.’ I quickly verified this via google. The second guess was exactly right. I had no idea that  this obscure bit of knowledge resided still in my memory, from all those years – decades- ago, when I took a graduate school seminar in the works of T.S. Eliot at Georgetown University, taught precisely and perceptively by Father Bishoff.

I don’t want to conclude without mentioning that Laura Lippman has dedicated Lady in the Lake to the memory of five of her fellow journalists at The Capital Gazette in Annapolis, who were gunned down in a mass shooting on June 28, 2018:

Rob Hiassen
Gerald Fischman
John McNamara
Rebecca Smith
Wendi Winters

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Killing with Confetti by Peter Lovesey

August 18, 2019 at 12:35 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

To begin with, this title required some patience on my part. Peter Diamond doesn’t appear until page 77. I wasn’t sure I was all that fascinated by what was going on while I awaited his entrance into the narrative.

Well – O ye of little faith! The story took off like a race horse. And I was so glad once again to be among the usual cast of characters. Peter’s team consists of Keith Halliwell, his second in command, Ingeborg Smith,  and John Leaman. All three are distinct individuals with a wide array of skills; in addition, they are excellent investigators. Other officers are available for support and assistance. I enjoy spending time with all of them.

Peter occasionally locks horns with his immediate superior, Assistant Chief Constable Georgina Dallymore. For her part, ACC Dallymore has a way of toadying in the presence of Deputy Chief Constable George Brace, her own superior, that is positively revolting!  DCC Brace’s son is in the midst of planning his wedding, and there are issues with this event, to put it mildly. Unfortunately for Peter, DCC Dallymore has volunteered him for chief of security in regard to the upcoming nuptials. It’s an assignmemt that he’d do anything to avoid, but alas, there’s no way out.

As usual, this latest Peter Diamond outing is a mix of humor and suspense. And Lovesey takes full advantage of the wonderful setting of Bath. This time, the action centers on Bath Abbey and the Roman Baths.

Bath Abbey

Roman Baths

Peter Lovesey is surely one of the wittiest, most adept, most literary practitioners of crime fiction writing today. He’s had a long and deservedly successful run; I am already looking forward to the next Peter Diamond adventure!

Peter Lovesey

 

 

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‘His cursor hovered over the send button for a moment and then, with the terrified bravery of a defeated general plunging his sword into his own abdomen, he clicked it.’ –A Philosophy of Ruin by Nicholas Mancusi

August 17, 2019 at 2:59 pm (Book review, books, Crime)

Oscar Boatwright is a 29-yearold professor of philosophy at an unnamed California college. He is single and lives in a small apartment. It’s a frugal, almost ascetic existence, in which nothing very dramatic occurs. Then things begin to happen.

This is the novel’s opening sentence:

Oscar Boatwright’s mother had died in her seat during a  flight from Hawaii to California, and his father had been made to sit for three hours in the same aircraft as her cooling body.

Every traveler’s nightmare, right? This awful happening and Oscar’s grief over it underlie all that happens next.  And as if this is not enough, his father has some disturbing revelations to impart.

But this is not what the novel is actually about, or not entirely. Oscar flies back home to Indiana with his father (also accompanied by his mother’s ‘remains’). After the funeral, he returns to California. He is still disoriented by grief. Over the weekend, after a short stint at a bar, he takes a comely young woman home. He doesn’t actually know her. He beds her, and the sex is  great.  (I’d like to note at this point that the erotic passages in this book are beautifully written, no mean feat, as we all know.)

On Monday, Oscar returns to teaching. The semester is just beginning. It’s an Introduction to Philosophy class. He stands in front of the room, surveying the group. A disturbing revelation awaits him.

Now at this point, I thought I knew where the story was headed. I was wrong – very wrong. The narrative careens forward at a frenzied pace, toward developments that are completely unanticipated, at least by me.. The tension was so great  that I had to keep putting the book down, in order to regain some semblance of equilibrium. And all this time, the writing is replete with the kind of figurative language that I’m glad writers still know how to deploy.. It’s like firecrackers going off at irregular intervals. Oh, and there is humor, also, albeit of the darkest hue.

Oscar could feel a great force amassing itself just outside his city walls, just  beyond his perception, and for an instant he was able to appreciate the inevitability of his own destruction, truly understood with a loving acceptance, but the it was gone.
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Even when during the day he paused to suss out a point in a paper he was reading or to spar with an astute student (in other words, when he was “doing philosophy”), his thoughts had a way of functioning alongside language: solving problems, achieving tasks, figuring things out through dialectic. But in the dark, his thoughts became unhinged from physical or linguistic application and floated above him as a meaningless terror.

(That is some powerful cogitation. No wonder  he grabbed a beer right afterwards.)
***************

A line of Schopenhauer returned to him, one that he had committed to memory as an undergraduate: “Does it not look as if existence were an error the consequences of which gradually grow more and more manifest?” Once, he had found it funny.
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It is nighttime, like now, and the stars are even brighter, not yet robbed by science of  their mystery….
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Oscar understood that he was having one of  those moments, he figured you might only get one in each epoch of your life, where  the massive clockwork that ticks just outside  the boundaries of perception in order to maintain the motion of reality is revealed for a single instant, and something totally inexplicable and impossible becomes perfectly, obviously clear.
*************

The issue of free will versus determinism keeps percolating to the surface of this novel. Oscar has actually written a paper on combatibilism, a school of though which seeks to reconcile the two.

As I was reading this novel, I kept recalling the opening sentence of Dickens’s David Copperfield:

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

In my estimation,  A Philosophy of Ruin is a bravura performance. I hope for more from this exceptionally gifted author.

Nicholas Mancusi

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Mystery news and views: the Dagger Award nominations

August 5, 2019 at 8:46 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, True crime)

Here are the shortlisted nominees for the 2019 Dagger Award, given by the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain:

Diamond Dagger Recipient: Robert Goddard

CWA Gold Dagger:
All the Hidden Truths, by Claire Askew (Hodder & Stoughton)
The Puppet Show, by M.W. Craven: (Constable)
What We Did, by Christobel Kent (Sphere)
Unto Us a Son Is Given, by Donna Leon (Heinemann)
American by Day, by Derek B Miller (Doubleday)
A Station on the Path to Somewhere Better, by Benjamin Wood (Scribner)

CWA John Creasey (New Blood):
All the Hidden Truths, by Claire Askew (Hodder & Stoughton)
The Boy at the Door, by Alex Dahl (Head of Zeus)
Scrublands, by Chris Hammer (Wildfire)
Turn a Blind Eye, by Vicky Newham (HQ)
Blood & Sugar, by Laura Shepherd-Robinson (Mantle)
Overkill, by Vanda Symon (Orenda)

CWA ALCS Gold Dagger for Non-fiction:
All That Remains: A Life in Death, by Sue Black (Doubleday)
Murder by the Book: A Sensational Chapter in Victorian Crime,
by Claire Harman (Viking)
The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century, by Kirk Wallace Johnson (Hutchinson)
 An Unexplained Death: The True Story of a Body at the Belvedere,
by Mikita Brottman (Viking)
The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, by Hallie Rubenhold (Doubleday)
The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, by Ben Macintyre (Viking)

CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger:
Give Me Your Hand, by Megan Abbott (Picador)
Safe Houses, by Dan Fesperman (Head of Zeus)
Killing Eve: No Tomorrow, by Luke Jennings (John Murray)
Lives Laid Away, by Stephen Mack Jones (Soho Crime)
To the Lions, by Holly Watt (Bloomsbury)
Memo from Turner, by Tim Willocks (Jonathan Cape)

CWA Sapere Books Historical Dagger:
The Quaker, by Liam McIlvanney (Harper Fiction)
Destroying Angel, by S.G. MacLean: (Quercus)
Smoke and Ashes, by Abir Mukherjee (Harvill Secker)
The House on Half Moon Street, by Alex Reeve (Raven)
Tombland, by C.J. Sansom: (Mantle)
Blood & Sugar, by Laura Shepherd-Robinson (Mantle)

CWA International Dagger:
A Long Night in Paris, by Dov Alfon;
translated by Daniella Zamir (Maclehose Press)
Weeping Waters, by Karin Brynard;
translated by Maya Fowler and Isobel Dixon (World Noir)
The Cold Summer, by Gianrico Carofiglio;
translated by Howard Curtis (Bitter Lemon Press)
Newcomer, by Keigo Higashino;
translated by Giles Murray (Little, Brown)
The Root of Evil, by Håkan Nesser;
translated by Sarah Death (Mantle)
The Forger, by Cay Rademacher;
translated by Peter Millar (Arcadia)

CWA Short Story Dagger:
“Strangers in a Pub,” by Martin Edwards (from Ten Year Stretch, edited by Martin Edwards and Adrian Muller; No Exit Press)
“Death Becomes Her,” by Syd Moore (from The Strange Casebook,
by Syd Moore; Point Blank Books)
“The Dummies’ Guide to Serial Killing,” by Danuta Reah (from The Dummies’ Guide to Serial Killing and Other Fantastic Female Fables,
by Danuta Reah [aka Danuta Kot]; Fantastic)
“I Detest Mozart,” by Teresa Solana (from The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and Other Stories, by Teresa Solana; Bitter Lemon Press)
“Bag Man,” by Lavie Tidhar (from The Outcast Hours,
edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin; Solaris)

Dagger in the Library:
M.C. Beaton
Mark Billingham
John Connolly
Kate Ellis
C.J. Sansom
Cath Staincliffe

Debut Dagger
(for the opening of a crime novel by an uncontracted writer):
Wake, by Shelley Burr
The Mourning Light, by Jerry Krause
Hardways, by Catherine Hendricks
The Firefly, by David Smith
A Thin Sharp Blade, by Fran Smith

Let me say right off the bat that I’m delighted to see Robert Goddard being honored in this way. I read his first novel, Past Caring, when it came out here in 1986 and recognized at once that he was an excellent new talent. Since then, he’s written twenty-six more novels, of which I’ve read some twelve or thirteen.

Goddard’s books are not conventional mysteries; rather, they’re a blend of some of the elements of crime fiction and those of espionage, novels, international intrigue, and often historical fiction as well. They’re gracefully written and not fiendishly complicated or stuffed with extraneous characters. There’s often a love story, either incipient or well under way.

Goddard’s oeuvre constitutes a mix a mix of stand-alones and limited series. Into the Blue, one of three novels featuring Harry Barnett, was filmed with John Thaw in the starring role.

Of the titles I’ve read, I’d especially recommend these:

For a complete list, click here.

I’ve read just a few of the fiction titles on this list. The Donna Leon – Well, I love every one of the Guido Brunetti novels, and as for as I’m concerned,  Unto Us a Son Is Given is just as good as its predecessors. Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott and Safe Houses by Dan Fesperman are both excellent. And a special shout out for C.J. Sansom’s Tombland, a marvelous, sprawling historical novel that had me so absorbed that I fairly flew through its 880 pages – no problem.

Finally, the category of non-fiction is where I’ve read the most. Murder by the Book: A Sensational Chapter in Victorian Crime by Claire Harman was interesting, though for me, it fell short of being truly gripping. I was intrigued, though by the description of  the public’s fevered obsession with the crime – the murder of an elderly aristocrat by one of his servants. It showed that today’s intense absorption in true crime is really nothing new, although on this particular morning, after a horrible bloody weekend in this country, people might be more inclined to turn away from the subject.

I know that The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Wallace Johnson got excellent reviews, but for whatever reason it did not work for me. I got about fifty pages in and then gave up. All That Remains: A Life in Death, by Sue Black looks really good. I hadn’t heard of it before; at present, it resides on my already groaning night stand.

An Unexplained Death: The True Story of a Body at the Belvedere by Mikita Brottman. I was really pleased to see that this book made the cut. The unexplained death in the title refers to the body of a young man, inexplicably found on a section of roofing of Brottman’s own apartment complex in Baltimore. Her investigation takes some strange turns until she reaches a conclusion. The book was riveting.

The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, by Ben Macintyre. Yet another terrific read. I’m not sure how or when I became so interested in  espionage, both fictional and actual, but I’ve had some excellent reading in the field in recent years. One of the best was also written by Macintyre: A Spy Among Friends, the story of the perpetually notorious traitor Kim Philby. The Spy and the Traitor is Philby in reverse: it’s the story of Oleg Gordievsky, who, during the Cold War, repeatedly risked his life to inform on his Russian spymasters for the benefit of British intelligence. The story of his exfiltration is as suspenseful as anything Le Carre ever dreamed up. (Charlotte Philby, granddaughter of Kim, has just published a novel entitled The Most Difficult Thing.)

  Finally, there is Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five, in which the lives of each of Jack the Ripper’s five victims are explored and revealed in detail. This book to my mind is a triumph. These women are worth knowing about as distinct individuals who struggled constantly with poverty, displacement, and an uncaring environment. While reading this saga, I had to keep reminding myself that this was Victoria’s England, where royalty and aristocrats lived in splendor and had their every want and need catered to.

What a prodigious feat of research this book is! For my money, it should win every award in the book, and then some.

And before I close, I want to recommend Michael Dirda’s recent piece in the Washington Post on Somerset Maugham‘s Ashenden stories. Dirda says this about Maugham’s style:

While no one denies Maugham’s gifts as a storyteller, his prose has regularly been dismissed as pedestrian. Not so. It is plain, direct, natural, the language of a well-educated, civilized Englishman. If you would write perfectly, Maugham once declared, you should write as clearly, as urbanely as Voltaire, which is just what he himself tries to do.

When I read that, I wanted to stand up and cheer! (In fact, I may have actually done so. Husband Ron is  indulgent of such occasional outbursts; the last one occurred when Alice Munro won the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature.)

  Ever since reading the 2009 biography of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings – reviewed and recommended by Michael Dirda in the Post – I’ve been delving into his novels and stories at regular intervals. I have to say, though, that  Ashenden: or the British Agent is well overdue a definitive new edition by a major publishing house. Knopf, New York Review Books, are you listening?

Click here to read “‘Ashenden’: the Perfect Late Summer Escape Read, and a Classic.”
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Dead Man’s Mistress by David Housewright

August 3, 2019 at 2:38 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  This is a nifty little caper novel in which an unlicensed private eye goes in search of three valuable paintings. The art works were boosted from the home of one Louise Wykoff, usually referred to as “that Wykoff Woman.” Now Louise was a sometime model and sometime lover of the artist, Randolph McInnis. Also in the picture is Mary Ann McInnis, widow of Randolph and enthusiastic hater of Louise.

Louise however, had no documentation as to their provenance of the paintings; and nor were they insured. Add to that, Louise, a painter herself, is a dab hand at mimicking Randolph’s style. So: who actually made this art? And to whom does it belong, stolen or not?

Enter the rather uniquely named Rushmore McKenzie, described in the jacket copy as “an occasional unlicensed private investigator.” Called simply McKenzie by just about everyone, he’s been asked to look into  the theft.  Soon he finds himself looking into a murder as well, one in which he himself is initially implicated.

Anyway, the cast of characters keeps getting larger, thus providing both McKenzie and the local police with plenty of suspects. Although cleared of involvement in the homicide, McKenzie is not necessarily cleared of suspicion. Why, you might ask, is McKenzie not licensed? The reason is that he’s been made independently wealthy by a generous legal settlement. He detects out of a genuine desire to help people and also for the sheer pleasure of it, not for the money. (This reminded me of Andy Carpenter the lawyer in the David Rosenfelt series, although in Andy’s case, his comfortable situation has been facilitated by a hefty inheritance.)

Dead Man’s Mistress has lots of snappy dialog in the tried and true gumshoe tradition. (I invariably come back to the classic line, spoken by Sam Spade, from The Maltese Falcon: “The cheaper  the crook, the gaudier the patter.”) The novel is lightweight and breezy and zips right along. And unexpectedly, it has a nicely realized sense of place. Most of the action takes place in and around Grand Marais, Minnesota. This is a recreational area that caters primarily to tourists. (That’s during the summer, of course – we are, after all, speaking of Minnesota.) I even learned of an actual yearly event that sounds rather wonderful:

Every August, reenactors from across the country dress in period attire and gather at the post for what is called the Grand Rendezvouz and pretend for three days to be living in the late eighteenth century.

This is just the kind of thing I love.

I liked McKenzie,  and as I was reading, I kept trying to recall who he reminded me of. Then I remembered: Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, of blessed memory.

 

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Joe Country, being the sixth entry in the Slough House series written by Mick Herron

July 29, 2019 at 10:45 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  The action in Joe Country takes place primarily in Wales during a ferocious blizzard. And there is plenty of action, what with the disgraced spies of Slough House chasing, and being chased by, a host of bad actors. The trigger for all this mayhem is Louisa Guy’s determination to find Lucas Harper, the teen-aged son of Min Harper, her former and now deceased lover. Almost as soon as she arrives in Wales, Louisa goes dark, prompting her Slough House colleagues to mount a search mission. Things quickly become confused and dangerous. As always in this series, the dialog is arch, the plot is convoluted, and the mood is shot through with dark humor and bitter irony.

A glossary on the site Intelligence Search defines joe as ‘a deep-cover agent.’

Joe Country is the fifth full length novel in the Slough House series that I’ve read. I liked them all up until London Rules, which I didn’t especially care for. I thought it contained too much description of  the revolting comportment of Jackson Lamb, who’s head of the outfit. (I’ve seen him compared to Andy Dalziel of Reginald Hill‘s Dalziel and Pascoe series. I think Hill’s characterization is somewhat more subtle.) In this latest entry, Lamb is still pretty disgusting, but being as he’s monitoring events from London and not directly involved in the Welsh scrum, I found his presence in the narrative less of an annoyance.

As you can see from the Stop! You’re Killing Me entry, the Slough House novels have been a hit with critics and with many readers as well. But they don’t work for everyone. As of now, I’d say they definitely work for me. I fairly raced through Joe Country.

Mick Herron

 

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The Body in Question by Jill Ciment

July 21, 2019 at 6:39 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  The jury selected for a murder trial is sequestered. In this close quartered isolation, two members – at first, known to us only as C-2 and F-17 – are strongly attracted to each other and begin a clandestine affair. C-2, a woman in her early fifties, is married to a man some thirty years her senior. She loves her husband deeply; he still possesses more than his quotient of robust physical energy and his mind remains questing and alert. (And yes, sex, too, is still in the mix.) yet C-2 feels powerless in the grip of this unsought after passion.

Admittedly, it was somewhat disconcerting reading about characters identified solely by a letter and a number. I felt at times as though I were reading about robots. But if so, this was a whole new take on robots. (This puts me in mind of Ian McEwan’s brilliant Machines Like Me.) I’ve rarely read a crime novel in which the feelings ran so high and so close to the surface.

The crime itself is especially horrendous; I wish it were less so. The burgeoning relationship distracts from it, which in this case is a blessing.

I was unsure from one minute to the next what the outcome would be. The writing was terrific.

You must steel yourself concerning the crime, but fortunately, the author does not dwell on particulars.

Recommended, but with the above mentioned caveat.

 

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Big Sky – My, oh My! or, Kate Atkinson does it again

July 14, 2019 at 7:44 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  Many readers of crime fiction have  been impatiently awaiting the return of Jackson Brodie. Brodie last appeared in Started Early, Took My Dog, a 2010 novel  by Kate Atkinson, published in 2010. I never read that book. I read its predecessor, When Will There Be Good News, and found it somewhat disappointing. This was no doubt due to having absolutely loved Case Histories. Loved it enough, that is, to nominate it for future classic status.

For my money, Big Sky is a welcome return to form. Its excellence is due not especially to the presence of Jackson Brodie – though that in itself is  a  definite plus – but to the elegant plot structure, the masterful building of suspense, the strategic deployment of an irreverent and delightful wit, and above all, the concatenation of fascinating characters. Several ruthless yet charming men are involved in a singularly evil enterprise; their wives/partners are either clueless or have secrets of their own – or, somehow, both. There are children in the mix as well, including two teenage boys: Harry, a truly wonderful person, and Nathan, whose  overweening and sullen demeanor would have earned him, in former times, the back of someone’s hand across his smug countenance. (Nathan is Jackson Brodie’s son.)

The story is set in and around Scarborough, on England’s North Sea Coast.

He could see Whitby from here, two miles south along the beach, the skeleton of the abbey standing on top of the cliff.

In 2007, my husband and I were there:

I love the way that Atkinson’s characters pull in quotations seemingly from left field. Here’s DC Reggie Chase, observing an especially vivid sunset:

“‘See where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament.'” [From Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe]

I like this one too:

“Well, you know what the song says….You can check out but you can’t leave.” [The exact lines are: “You can check out any time you like / But you can never leave!” From the song Hotel California by The Eagles]

You wouldn’t know it from the stern countenance in this photo, but Kate Atkinson has a marvelous sense of humor.

Big Sky is vastly entertaining; however, I don’t think it’s Atkinson at her absolute best. That accolade, in my view, goes to Life After Life, a true tour de force.

 

 

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