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Archive for the ‘Crimes and Misdemeanours’ Category

murderA Murder of Magpies

by Judith Flanders

2015: St. Martin’s Press, New York.

It’s March Break, which means pajama days, which means days to read for hours on end.

I curled up this morning with a find from Ben McNally Books, where I never fail to find an Anglophilic read, and even better, one I’ve not yet heard of.

A Murder of Magpies is a murder mystery by Judith Flanders, best known for her work on Victorian lives and times.  Her award-winning The Invention of Murder examined how the Victorians turned what was actually a rare crime into ubiquitous press and entertainment.

Flanders’s own foray into the murder mystery genre is set in London, and its protagonist, Samantha Clair, is an editor at a publishing firm housed in a draughty building and staffed by bright young things who are not so bright.  She scorns fashion, believes passionately in the value of her work, is cheerfully independent, funny and she is sexy.  When she asks one of the powerful men in the story to account for why he had wanted to help her, he replies

“You have balls.”  He looked at me as though he’d just paid me a compliment.  Of course, in his mind, he had.  I’d just never wanted balls.  Silly me.

Sam won my heart early in the book when she described her days: they are long, they start early, and only occasionally with a run:

There are supposed to be endorphins or whatever that make you feel great when you exercise.  I don’t think I have any, because I only feel great when I’m lying on the sofa reading a book, possibly while simultaneously eating biscuits.  That’s why I work in publishing, not athletics.

Sam is about to publish a tell-all about the crimes and misdemeanours in a large fashion house, when the book’s author and her friend, Kit, goes missing.  DI Jake Field comes to her office to ask about the death of a bike courier who was carrying a copy of the manuscript, and although he is at first dismissive of her concern about Kit’s whereabouts, things soon heat up on the action and attraction front.  Sam’s mother is a very well-connected lawyer who completes the detecting trio, and together they take us through a quick and very pleasurable read.

The book was riddled with improbabilities.  No way would the detective on the case tell Sam so much.  No way would a veteran editor but rookie crime-solver investigate and solve the crimes inside a fortnight.  Now way is Sam’s mother so well connected.  None of it mattered.  I was completely willing to suspend disbelief because Sam is a hard-working, book-loving, feminist spark, and I loved her.  I also loved the casual way in which she falls into a relationship with Jake in which neither of them play the other or get caught up in games.  She’s just so smart in so many ways, and I loved her company.

The book was published in England as Writer’s Block.  Neither title works particularly well; there was no case of writer’s block, nor was there a discussion of collective nouns involving death, more’s the pity, but since it’s the story that counts, the titles are neither here nor there.  The good news from England is that there will be more.  A Bed of Scorpions will be published in England this week.  Even better, it’s a campus novel.  It’s ticks each and every one of the boxes in my list of highly desirables, and I will be on the lookout this time when it does cross the pond.

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SansomMr. Dixon Disappears

Ian Sansom

New York: Harper Perennial, 2006

The second in The Mobile Library series of mysteries by Ian Sansom, Mr. Dixon Disappears is full of misanthropic charm and bookish goodness.  The titular mobile librarian, Israel Armstrong, BA (Hons), is disenchanted:

He was sick of the excuses and lies.  He was tired of the evasions and the untruths, of people refusing to stand up and speak the truth and take responsibility for their own actions.  It seemed to him like yet another symptom of the decline of Western civilization; of chaos; and climate change; and environmental disaster; and war; disease; famine; oppression; the eternal slow slide down and down and down.  It was entropy, nemesis, apotheosis, imminent apocalypse and sheer bad manners all rolled into one.

People were not returning their library books on time.

And if that’s not bad enough, hapless Israel finds himself arrested for the disappearance of department store proprietor, Mr. Dixon, and 100,000 pounds from the store safe.  When he wakes in jail, he faces a dark night of the reader’s soul: there is nothing to read, and, worse, he begins to doubt the very value of reading:

Library users were exactly the same as everyone else, it seemed, and this came as a terrible shock to Israel.  He had always believed that reading was good for you, that the more books you read somehow the better you were, the closer to some ideal of human perfection you came, yet if anything his own experience at the library suggested the exact opposite: that reading didn’t make you a better person, that it just made you short-sighted, and even less likely than your fellow man or woman to be able to hold a conversation about anything that did not centre around you and your ailments and the state of the weather.

Things improve marginally for Israel once he’s sprung from jail and can investigate the mystery himself, but he still finds himself woefully short of reading material.  He reluctantly picks up a murder mystery from the shelf of the room into which he’s had to decamp:

He’d never read a lot of crime fiction before; it was the covers, mostly, that put him off.  He was very anti-embossing.

I’m anti-embossing, too!  Mr. Dixon Disappears has no embossing on its cover, and on its insides, it’s a fairly meandering sort of a mystery; it’s wry and clever about books and bookish enthusiasm gone wrong.  The mystery plot never really grabbed me, however, so it’s not a book to come to if you want a good mystery with which to wrestle.

I read the first in Sansom’s new series of County Guides Mysteries last week, The Norfolk Mystery, and it felt a bit flat.  There was a lot of setting up of the series to come, I think, so I’m glad that I started with the second in the Mobile Library series.  I will go back for more non-embossed helpings.

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lexiconLexicon by Max Barry

New York: The Penguin Press, 2013.

Late to the party, as I often am.  This book made a number of “Best Books of 2013” lists, and Jenny named it winner in the Jolliest Good Fun category, an award that fits this book perfectly.

It was jolly good fun, and I could not put it down.  I suppose calling it a book about books is a bit of a stretch, but when an author names his characters after famous poets, and when those poets can use their words to control people, I think you have to say that this is a thriller that supplies thrills to bibliophiles.

Lexicon engages with multiple tropes from romance and westerns and thrillers, as well as with versions of the myth of Babel.  Barry brings that myth into the twenty-first century using linguistics, psychology, comparative mythology and computer science.  It’s a fascinating fantasy of how the brain and its operations might be compromised by a person in possession of the right words to override the brain’s normal operating system, the right words being a proto-language with enormous power.   A mysterious society of “poets,” led by the nefarious Yeats, recruits people who have a natural gift of persuasion, then trains them in the use of secret words that can control others’ behaviour.  Some of these recruits get out of hand.  Thrills ensue.

Of course, magic words can be a bit of a magic bullet in terms of plotting, and Barry explains away how a lot of the odd events never get investigated because the poets have managed to make reporters and the military and governments (!) believe what they want them to believe.  Whatever.  It’s just greasing the wheels of the story.

I think what I liked best about the book was Barry’s ability to take the myth of Babel and modernize it as a means to satirize our contemporary consumer and popular culture.  I found his use of linguistics and neurology so fun, and while I’m sure experts in these fields would find much to quarrel with in his application of them to this fantasy world, I did not want to quarrel.  Like so many characters in the book are forced to do, I was willing to suspend thought that would impede his goals with words.  I was willing to be enthralled.  Something about the quality of his scientific realism reminded me often of Lev Grossman’s The Magician King and The Magicians, and the descriptions of the school where the recruits are trained was a lot like Grossman’s college of magic.  The books share an ability to ground magic in something plausibly real, they make magic a difficult and often frustrating academic discipline.  I was also reminded of Philip Pullman’s Subtle Knife.  Barry and Pullman both describe a locksmith’s sense of intuiting a precise sliding into place of all the pieces needed to make the magic work.

The magic worked on me.  Jolly good fun.

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The Herring in the Library

L.C. Tyler

London: Pan Macmillan, 2011.

I do love a good mystery, and when a writer contrives to write a series that spoofs The Great Mysteries of Yore, I’m in heaven.  This book was hilarious.   I started out with a pencil in hand, but soon realized that if I made note of every passage that made me laugh, I’d have the whole book marked up, which would rather defeat the purpose.  The humour is arch, the narrators wonderfully unreliable, and although the allusions to Dame Agatha heavy enough to serve as murder weapons themselves, it is P.G. Wodehouse who is the presiding muse.

The comic series features mystery writer Ethelred Tressider, a woebegone man who is obsessed with his unsatisfactory amazon rankings, and his literary agent Elsie Thirkettle, an interfering chocoholic who reminds poor Ethelred endlessly that he’s a second-rate writer.  In this one, the pair confronts a classic locked room mystery, and they take turns narrating (and undercutting each other’s progress) to the solution.

I will admit that the plot of this third in the series was a wee bit thin, but the characterization more than made up for it.  The outcome of the investigation was also a foregone conclusion, but getting there was so much fun that I forgive all.  I have every intention of reading the rest of the series, and am thrilled to discover that L.C. Tyler ranks with Sarah Caudwell for intelligent and witty comfort reading.

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