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Archive for the ‘Mystery’ 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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untitledThe Word Exchange

Alena Graedon

Toronto: Bond Street Books, 2014.

This is the perfect bibliophile’s beach read!  It has all the thrills and spills of a blockbuster summer read, but what the characters are fighting for is the fate of The Word, or words, in the shape of protecting the most recent and most comprehensive edition of  the North American Dictionary of the English Language.

The novel has 26 chapters, one for each letter of the alphabet, and each chapter begins with the definition of a word, but none of these is quite right.  Take A:

Alice n: a girl transformed by reflection

Alice, it turns out, is the code name for one of our narrators, Anana Johnson, whose father has vanished:

On a very cold and lonely Friday last November, my father disappeared from the Dictionary.  And not only from the big glass building on Broadway where its offices were housed.  On that night, my father, Douglas Samuel Johnson (!), Chief Editor of the North American Dictionary of the English Language, slipped from the actual artifact he’d helped compose.

That was before the Dictionary died, letters expiring on the page.  Before the virus.  Before our language dissolved like so much melting snow. … Before my father vanished, before the first signs of S0111 arrived, I’d reflected very little on our way of life.  The changing world I’d come of age in–slowly bereft of books and love letters, photographs and maps, takeout menus, timetables, liner notes, and diaries–was a world I’d come to accept.  If I was missing out on things, they were things I didn’t think to miss.  How could we miss words?  We were drowning in a sea of text.  A new one arrived, chiming, every minute. (3)

In this near future, we drown in words but they all lack meaning, and much of that absence of content can be blamed on our increasing dependence on our devices.  Instead of phones, the ubiquitous device is a Meme, and it serves not only as a means of communication, but also as an extension of self and a substitute consciousness.  When the narrator enters a restaurant at the beginning of the novel, her Meme brings up the menu, but it then overrides her drink order, replacing a tea with a hot toddy, because it knows that she needs a stiff drink.

Memes can also, crucially, give their owners the words or definitions they need if they have difficulty remembering a word or its meaning.  Five cents a word.  Touch of a button.  This exchange is where the novel plays out: in the space between our use of language and its digital and corporate control.

Definitions and their ownership are the territory over which the characters battle, and the book is a fun and rollicking ride through an alarmingly corrupt future.  I was reminded often of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, and especially of Oryx and Crake in which Atwood does the heavy lifting of her world building.  They share the same kind of hysterical exaggeration of nefarious corporate interests that frightens, nevertheless, because, yes, people can be that stupid and that greedy.

At first, the struggle seems to be over the ownership of words and their definitions, but when a virus that corrupts spoken as well as digital communication begins to spread, the stakes get suddenly and critically higher.

This is a first novel for Graedon, a graduate of Brown and of Columbia’s MFA programme, and while the novel reveals its author to be whip smart and savvy about what makes a page-turner, I felt that her editor could have been more firm about eliminating some redundancies and tightening up some of the plot.  There are double and triple agents, but I never quite felt that the revelation had had the proper build up.  There was a bit too much slack in the reins, but not enough to spoil the ride.

Add this to your beach read haul for summer, though, and you’ll be reading well past sunset.

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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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lateThe Late Scholar, Based on the Characters of Dorothy L. Sayers

Jill Paton Walsh

London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2013.

Let me begin by saying that Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night is one of my all-time favourite mysteries and that her Five Red Herrings was one of the worst books through which I’ve ever struggled.  Train timetable mysteries may have been all the rage when she wrote Five Red Herrings, but, like bell bottoms, these are a thing very much better left forgotten.  Alas, it is on the strength of this last book that I have not gone back to read all of her Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane mysteries.  In a way, the fact that they are there waiting for me is a comfort, but I’m also not in a rush to repeat the disappointment of the herrings.

Still and all, when I read Alex’s review of the book and heard about Jill Paton Walsh’s project to revive the late Dorothy Sayers’s detecting duo, it was inducement enough to break one of my usual habits of beginning at the beginning and working chronologically through a writer’s oeuvre.  Not only have I missed some of the originals, but Walsh now has four Wimsey books under her belt, and I’m only just catching on.

No matter, this is a book that can largely stand alone, and, like Gaudy Night, it’s a campus novel.  The mystery plot revolves around an ancient manuscript and the murderer seems to be using Harriet Vane’s own plots to knock off scholars at St. Severin’s College in Oxford.  Campus novel, academic politics, libraries, poison pen book reviews, books and intertextuality–The Late Scholar ticks lots of boxes in my list of things to love.

And this book is palpably a labour of love for Walsh:

In bringing Peter and Harriet back to Oxford it resumes the setting, although not the epoch, of Gaudy Night. And it brings them very nearly into my own epoch; it is set in 1952 and I went up to Oxford in 1955. I am writing them for the first time into a world that I actually knew, my Oxford, as beloved to me as Sayers’ Oxford was to her.  I have had the most tremendous fun doing that. (More here.)

And I had tremendous fun reading it.

 

 

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imagesW47MPET5Northanger Abbey

Val McDermid

Toronto: Harper Collins, 2014.

One of the books in The Austen Project, Val McDermid’s reimagining of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is a delight.  She has found exactly the right template for reimagining Austen’s take on the gothic novels of her day: vampires!  It’s perfect.  I am a sucker (!) for this kind of thing, always hoping to find in fan fiction something that approximates the joy that the original book gives me.  Northanger Abbey is my favourite of Austen’s novels, not surprisingly, because it is a book about books, and McDermid embraces the metafictional and intertextual aspect of the project wholeheartedly.  The book positively fizzes with it.

Set in Scotland during the Edinburgh Festival, books are everywhere.  Cat Morland’s mother sends her off to Scotland with the Allens, and while they listen to Bram Stoker’s Dracula on audio book in the car on the drive up, her mother “displayed not a sign of concern about what dangers might lurk on the streets of Edinburgh, in spite of having read the crime novels of both Ian Rankin and Kate Atkinson” (9).  One of the Fringe Festival plays is a “dramatic adaptation of last year’s bestselling novel about love, zombies and patisserie, Cupcakes to Die For” (43).  You can see how McDermid has her intertextual cake and eats it too: reverence and satire in equal measure.  Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea, Harriet the Spy, and even The Gruffalo all make appearances; this book is absolutely saturated in bibliophilic goodness.

She refers frequently to the fact that characters imagine themselves in a Jane Austen costume drama, and by doing so addresses head on the difficulty of reimagining Austen for the modern age.  To my mind, she has done so seamlessly.  There is dancing, of course, but it’s lessons in highland dancing that first bring Cat and Henry Tilney together.  Vampire fiction substitutes for the horrors of Austen’s gothic fiction, and Henry is an avid reader of the page-turners.  And while text messages largely substitute for the letters of the original, real ink and paper make their way into the book as well, with a wit that shows that McDermid can hold her own in the snarky comments department:

“Oh, and this came by hand while we were out.”  He nodded at a thick piece of card tucked into the flap of the sort of heavy white envelope that signals senders with a good opinion of themselves. (22)

 

Of course, the danger of this kind of reading is that it’s difficult to fully immerse yourself in the book when constantly on the look-out for comparisons.  I read Joanna Trollope’s rewriting of Sense and Sensibility with considerably less pleasure.  I think my mistake was to re-read Austen’s book before reading Trollope’s, and it just did not hold up, so I’ll end by recommending McDermid’s book highly and by suggesting that you avoid  (re)reading the original first.

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In a post-Christmas reading spree, I gobbled The Fellowship of the Rings, inspired by our umpteenth watching of the films, a Christmas tradition, and I finished re-reading Paradise Lost, which I’ve had on the go for a month.  (That one was inspired by reading Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy to the boys earlier this year.  It’s loosely based on Milton, and I wanted to remind myself of Milton’s Satan.  Definitely the best character in the epic, all pale ire, envy and despair.)

You will understand, then, that I had quite a hefty hangover and could not settle into my next read.  I wanted a bibliophilic one.  I wanted a page-turner.  I wanted humour and escape, but it had to be smart.  I tried a few Jasper Ffordes, but reading out of sequence is something I do not do lightly, and Thursday Next is not a series to read out of sequence, apparently.  (I really liked The Eyre Affair, but there are, what, eight books in the series now?  I’m missing a few, but I have the most recent ones and just wanted to read them already.  Didn’t work.  Will I ever catch up?)

coverThank heavens for Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, another suitably bibliophilic read, a page-turner, and a fun note on which to end the year.  This book was under the tree for me this year, a perfect gift for holiday reading.  Part bibliophilic novel, part mystery, part fantasy, it had a sprinkling of many things to please.

The narrator, Clay Jannon, is a newly-hired clerk in the eponymous San Francisco bookstore, which appears to be a front for a book-based cult.

Now: I was pretty sure “24-hour bookstore” was a euphemism for something.  It was on Broadway, in a euphemistic part of town.  (7)

We get an inside look at the cult’s underground library of leather-bound, one-of-a-kind books, as well as a look inside the operations at Google, where the narrator’s girlfriend works.  It’s a wonderful mixture of old and new, with many a sly wink at the reader who knows better than to believe in rumors about the death of the book.  Various generations of human readers file in and out of the narrative, as do generations of computers and electronic reading devices.  Even the Canadian Kobo gets a walk-on part.  Typography features heavily in the plot, and I found myself itching to google as I read in order to find the font the author describes.  The narrator made me laugh out loud, and his arch humour was the perfect counterpoint to the more fantastical aspects of the plot.  He does not take himself too seriously, and that, I think is the key to the book’s success for me.

I may be able to squeeze one more book in before the toll of midnight tomorrow, but if I don’t, I am content to end a year of reading on this book about books.

Happy New Year, all!

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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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