April 30, 2009

Middling mysteries, but free

Lady Molly of Scotland Yard is written from the painfully worshipful view of her, clerk?, upper servant?, who takes her as a champion of feminine intuition and guile in the plodding world of Scotland Yard. The first few stories are mildly interesting bits of Edwardian life, especially feminine life; I noted one illegitimate child put to be raised by a village woman, with the mother certainly thought less of but not scorned or ostracized in the village; and another young woman of good family who fenced and boxed.

They didn't do much for me as mysteries -- if there were clues, they were social enough that I missed most of them; Lady Molly is supposed to be 'condensing fact from the vapors of nuance', as another writer had it, and I miss nuance from a culture even as little different as that. The only really interesting mystery is of Lady Molly's origins; I can *imagine* that over the course of the whole, the worshiping servant discovers them -- perhaps accidentally -- perhaps disillusioned -- perhaps more worshipful yet -- ... But I only imagine, because I didn't finish.

Max Carrados has an equally improbably competent sleuth, this one blind and rich, with a rather stupider professional inquiry agent as the narrator and foil. The puzzles are more material, and hold up to changing time a little better, and I think there are more clues for the reader.

From the U. Penn. Celebration of Women Writers: Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, Baroness Orczy

Project Gutenberg etext #12932: Max Carrados, Ernest Bramah

So wrote clew.

August 26, 2005

Mrs. Hudson and the Malabar Rose, Martin Davies

In which Mrs. Hudson and her tweeny Flotsam solve a couple of Holmes' cases, principally by paying attention to things that servants always see and the Great Detective only pretends to. It doesn't exactly undercut Holmes, but it hardly extends the myth.

Lots of lively Willkie Collins-ish action, though; fun costume fic.

Find in a Library

So wrote clew.

April 11, 2005

Third volumes, more alike

Neither A Spectacle of Corruption and The Damascened Blade, each third in a series by, respectively, David Liss and Barbara Cleverly, are as interesting as their first two volumes. They're both converging to a normal pattern of series adventure/mystery novels, of a tough but connected solitary man with a new wistful or cynical romance every book.

This is all right, but was done so completely by Raymond Chandler that I'd rather have had more of the social commentary that the total-outsiderness of the first novels had. For one thing, there's more contemporaneous fiction from either period that follows the well-connected. For another, the closer they get to being comfortable in their worlds, the less useful they are as commentary on their eras seen (will we nill we) from ours.

If I were fonder of either character, I would be less ruthless in wishing them interesting lives.

Damascened... has a lot of fun playing the blood-and-honour mores of the Scottish and Pathan highlands against each other. It tickles my memory that some pre-War fiction had even more fun with it, being much less shy about bloodshed and revenge, but I can't put my finger on it. Probably Kipling, of course:

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
       When two strong men stand face to face,
       tho' they come from the ends of the earth!

LCCN: PS 356 I7814 S64 2004 (A Spectacle of Corruption)

ISBN: 078671333X (The Damascened Blade)

March 22, 2005

Murder in a Mill Town, P. B. Ryan

This is one of the more successful hybrids of the Kinsey Millhone (sp?) tough-PI mystery subgenre with the Victorian-lady mystery subgenre. It's set in Gilded Age Boston, which provides all sort of plausible rich corruption and desparate poverty for basically noir plot. The heroine had a vicious girlhood, but is working as a governess for an unshakeable Brahmin, which lets her move between the legal and the violent worlds more plausibly than most Victorian tough dames.

ISBN: 0425197158

March 04, 2005

Ragtime in Simla, Barbara Cleverly

Is that a perfect escapist title or what? It's a great little piece of nougat. Not filling, not subtle, but the characters are likeable and the several looming disasters in the political background give the whole some weight that it otherwise lacks.

There's not actually a lot of ragtime, and the plot would have worked for Wilkie Collins. The social disjuncture that was so useful in The Last Kashmiri Rose is present, but not as stressful for the hero, nor as useful to the plot.

ISBN: 0440242231

October 14, 2004

Get Out or Die, Jane Finnis

A Roman-era British thriller/mystery; not as fun as Lindsey Davis, because the voice is too earnest and certain. The main character is a young woman who runs the family roadhouse in northern Britannia while her brother is off in the army; she's bright and organized and determined to stay, but she isn't subtle. Nor are her opponents, the defeated Britons yearning to kick out the invaders and restore the old ways. There are nods given to complex cultural and personal loyalties, but mostly it's a young person's adventure novel.

From the author's afterword, some of this is intentional; her main character is a settler and settlers probably aren't, as a rule, given to double-guessing themselves.

The Romans, like empire-builders through the ages, thought they had an absolute right to colonise wherever they chose, and were certain they were benefiting the peoples they conquered.

Mmmm, always so topical. I found myself kind of balanced between the assumption that invaders, especially slaveholding ones, are obviously the Bad Guys, and seeing this (as I expect anyone British would) with the hindsight of hundreds of years of prosperous Romano-Britons, and a mantle of empire patched together as an inheritance.

ISBN: 1590580753

September 27, 2004

A Cold Touch of Ice, Michael Pearce

This is, I presume, a chapter in a coherent novel about the Mamur Zapt, a Welshman with duties to both Egypt and the British Empire just as World War I pulled those apart. It's also a complete mystery in itself, more a motive-first emotional mystery than an intellectual puzzle one of the train-schedule kind.

If the "Mamur Zapt Mysteries" are one novel, then I ought to read them in order, not randomly as I have begun. The Poisoned Pen Press could have made this a little easier by numbering them.

ISBN: 1590580656

August 08, 2004

Death of an Effendi, Michael Pearce

This is a little like The Last Kashmiri Rose in that the detective is an outsider several times over, in a setting very exotic to me. In this case, Egypt in the early twentieth century; the 'tec is a Welshman, so an outsider to the English, but also head of the Khedive's Secret Police.


Some of the incidental interest is in the comfortably distant troubles of empires and nations trying to disentangle themselves. Also, Kropotkin is important (offstage); and the prose is brisk and funny:

'Has anyone seen [the crocodiles]?'

'Well, Strabo reports—' began McPhee.

'Strabo? Is he one of your men?'

McPhee looked at him, astonished. 'Strabo died two thousand years ago,' he said.

'Surely you have more up-to-date information?' said the official.

Also delightful: there are another ten novels about this character, recently republished in the US.

ISBN: 1590580664

A Presumption of Death, Jill Paton Walsh & Dorothy L. Sayers

This isn't as much like the original Sayers mysteries as Thrones, Dominations was. One might think that the smaller amount of Sayers' material in it would explain that, but it's also less like the original Sayers mysteries than A Piece of Justice, which is Walsh's alone.

The murder mystery part isn't very hard; the historical moral dilemma that complicates it is more interesting. The characters aren't as torn by impossible duties as they were earlier in the series, or as torn as in Walsh's A Desert in Bohemia. It really falls down in the writing, though, with few ringing sentences; this is not helped by a terrible job of editing or copyediting, which left surely-accidental clunkers to break the stream.

ISBN: 031299138X

July 30, 2004

Fast Women, Jennifer Crusie

A gooseberry fool, a lovely bit of fluff; a romance novel/murder mystery, openly a homage to the noir mystery movies but written a lot more like a 1930s screwball comedy.

The repartee is charming even though the individual sentences aren't all that unusual—again, like a screwball movie; there are some nice friendships in it, the characters develop a bit, the murder is never played for laughs, and the depth of the plot is actually about divorce and marriage and fighting fair. Just entertainment, but not embarrassing.

ISBN: 0312981059

May 24, 2004

The Accusers, Lindsey Davis

Davis and Falco are back at the top of their form. Falco and Helena's charm is more evident in this novel than the previous one because this novel relies less on their charm. There's a great deal of plot here, tied into legal and political knots. Motives are tangled, kindness thwarted, lives cut short. Lumps of exposition are patiently stirred into the gravy of intrigue.

The ultimate villains are so villainous that they become rich successful politicians. This is, like murder itself, entertaining when fictional.

ISBN: 0892968117

April 28, 2004

Corpse de Ballet, Ellen Pall

The preposterously fortunate heroine of this series is a bit rich; but of course some of us are in fact Fortune's favored children far longer than is fair, and she's a believable person in her improbable circumstances. The writing is mannered but not quite precious and brisks up for scenes of confrontation. More, the longueurs weave back into the plot.

Much as I have liked this and the second volume, I admire the "A Nine Muses Mystery" constraint. By Volume Nine, more series characters need to be thrown off Reichenbach Falls than not.

If it's going well, the conceit allows a tenth volume for Mnemosyne. (Or for the Tenth Muse! unlikely on current plotting, but a great scene to ring down the curtain.)

ISBN: 0-312-98010-8

High Country, Nevada Barr

I've been increasingly worried about the physical durability of Barr's middle-aged park ranger heroine; I can believe that stubbornness and adrenaline carry her through one adventure's minor shocks, but as she gets older surely the cracked bones and pulled tendons leave cumulative damage? And she must be getting slower than the young crooks she's pursuing.

In her latest adventure she uses her age to be invisible when undercover. When the drama breaks down to violence, she half survives by stubbornness and woodscraft, against healthy but misplaced city thugs. The thugs have also learned in a ruthless school, and craft doesn't get her back home. Anna Pigeon is, clearly, briefly possessed by at least one of the Furies. This keeps her alive but is not pleasant for anyone.

Barr doesn't use the word, but I don't think there's much room for argument except about what possession 'really is'.

ISBN: 0-399-15144-3

April 25, 2004

Murder in a Cold Climate, Scott Young

Like the Kate Shugak series by Dana Stabenow, this is set in the far North. In this case, the Northwest Territories of Canada; somewhat earlier than the Stabenows; and written in the first person, in the voice of a Native in the RCMP. I like the voice; he burbles on in his head while presenting a dry, Raymond Chandler-like tough guy image.

The mystery is OK too, with a suitably adventurous ending.

ISBN: 0-14-012336-9

March 10, 2004

The Last Kashmiri Rose, Barbara Cleverly

It's a brilliant setup for a detective series; after the Great War, in India, with a detective who is not only English but a Metropolitan Policeman and measurably socially below most of the English officers and civil servants he mixes with. This allows a plausible and slightly modern viewpoint, and also makes the frequent lumps of exposition plausible. Such a character might well have rehearsed to himself, before going to dinner, the peculiar rules of a cavalry mess; and might have had "what everybody knows" laid out for him by people who knew he wasn't anybody.

It's a handy solution, even if it isn't as elegant as sinking the exposition invisibly into the action. There's at least one more novel in the series; presumably he'll need even more exposition if he investigates anyone not English.

ISBN: 0-440-24156-1

Hollow Crown, David Roberts

I found the language flat and the characters unconvincing, so I can't tell you if the plot went anywhere. Sample:

Edward was immensely pleased to meet the distinguished economist and his Russian wife. He had long thought Benyon was one of the few economists who made sense and moreover was, at least in his private life, an outsider and a rebel. His interests were not the usual pursuits of the upper class — hunting, shooting and fishing — but books, theatre, painting, and ballet.

ISBN: 0-7867-1052-7

February 17, 2004

The Bug, Ellen Ullman

Ullman does write about what programming is like, and why it drives people and drives them crazy. My other half and I probably gave away a dozen copies of Close to the Machine to puzzled friends and relatives (I bet they read it, too: I used to disingenuously add, "It's the programming we find so compelling. The sex scenes are a San Francisco thing.")

No heroic coders in The Bug; one doomed coder, a tragic victim who makes everyone around him miserable too. I've read a review that couldn't see him as a tragic figure, because, I think, the reviewer didn't imagine how compelling programming can be. If not seen by The Light That Failed, he's really quite repellant. No worse than the poet of Ars Poetica, though.

I don't know if you need to have been a programmer or a poet to read this as a tragedy. You probably do need to program a bit to see that it's a classic fair mystery, very like the Golden Age ones with train-tables and floorplans of the country house. I was delighted when I decided she'd pulled that off in pseudocode instead of a time-schedule. Neither the story nor the mood depend on 'getting' the mystery; both are like The Gold Bug Variations, allusive and sad. "I alone am escaped to tell thee"; "I wish I were what I was when I wanted to be what I am now".

ISBN: 0-385-50860-3

February 13, 2004

SOS at Midnight, Walker A. Tompkins

A tract in praise of the manly and All-American virtues of ham radio, much in the style of late Tom Swift or early Hardy Boys novels, and with gear description on about every third page.

"Gear porn", said my nearest Extra-class ham, who wasn't gripped by the plot.

It was first copyright in 1960, and was republished in 1980, slightly updated. This is both charming and hilarious. The opening pages introduce timid, frail rich boy Spud Kleveland, and his campus hero Tommy Rockford, varsity fullback and high-school ham-club president:

Such hero worship embarassed Tommy. On the gridiron he could ignore the adulation of the teenage girls in the stands. In his favorite classroom—the electronics lab—he could maneuver a soldering iron through the complicated innards of electrical equipment with as much aplomb as a master surgeon. But as an artist—well, Spud had him beat all hollow.
"Let's go hang this, huh?" Tommy said, escorting Spud up the corridor. "Spud, I've often wondered—why haven't you taken up ham radio?" As president of the high school radio club, Tommy felt that every normal boy should share his unbounded enthusiasm for amateur radio.

Off they go to catch the Purple Shirt Gang, armed only with high technology and the wits of honest hams.

ISBN: 0-87259-500-5

February 10, 2004

Murder at Shots Hall, Maureen Sarsfield

Another Rue Morgue reprint. I'm dubious about the mystery plot, and maybe the romance, but the combination of postwar English village cozy and Gothic horror is quite good. The grue rises naturally from the cracks in the cozy.

ISBN: 0-915230-55-0

January 03, 2004

Mrs. Malory and Death in Practice, Hazel Holt

Finishing yesterday's Cozy Trifecta; Mrs. Malory has a whole small-English-village series, and solves mysteries by being a gossip in the old sense. People, including the police, tell her things because they tacitly trust her to pass on what should be told, and not, what shouldn't. This would be more interesting if her inner dialogue weren't as kind and restrained as her outer one, but not as restful as it is.

ISBN: 0-451-20920-6

January 02, 2004

Black-Headed Pins, Constance & Gwenyth Little

This isn't a very coherent murder mystery, but it uses the "bagel, bagel, bagel!" theory of humor beautifully. (The third time something incongruous appears, it's funny.)

Reasonably witty dialogue, if you read fast and like 1930s screwball movies:

"Now that we are no longer engaged," I said with dignity, "you can't bawl me out like that. Nor can you tell me where to get off at, or to head in, and I won't accept either cards or spades from you."

ISBN: 0-915230-25-9

Death is Academic, Amanda Mackay

A murder mystery; classic in its workings, quite 'fair' in its clues. The heroine is a bit bland and perfect: Attractive, red-haired Hannah Land is beginning a new life and a new career. Duke University in the mid-1970s also seems a bit bland and perfect; the students rebel by wearing denim and boycotting iceberg lettuce. Still, change is percolating, and the little shifts of language to adapt are another period piece.

ISBN: 0-679-50638-1

December 26, 2003

The Grey Mist Murders, Constance & Gwenyth Little

A screwball 1930s murder mystery; the narrating heroine cracks wise, all right, and the hero is square-jawed but no pushover. They're neither of them any too bright, but the plot and the nattering kept me too busy to mind.

This is the first mystery by these '30s authors. The modern introduction suggests that it's also the weakest one with the least competent heroine. The sisters wrote another score of mysteries together, and my library has nearly all the Rue Morgue Press reprints; perfect for 'flu days.

ISBN: 0-915230-26-7

December 19, 2003

Unhinged, Sarah Graves

Possibly a new category of cozy - the running joke is DIY repair of a large old house in Maine. No real advice given, but it's good for continual falling-off-ladder into explosive solvent laughs.

The main character is not at all a sweet curious Everywoman with an unusual nose for murder; she has a past not just checkered but shady, possibly blotted, so it makes a lot of sense that she sees trouble coming, knows what to do about it, and doesn't consult the police. She's reasonably likeable anyway. There's an expected cast of eccentric-but-lovable secondary characters. Not deep, but not bad.

ISBN: 0-553-380229-1

December 07, 2003

O' Artful Death, Sarah Stewart Taylor

The blurbs compare this to the Amanda Cross academic mysteries. I don't think so; this novel is too congratulatory of its heroine, too many people around her like her more than seems plausible. The mystery was OK, but the character development was unconvincing because the secondary characters were so uniformly compliant.

ISBN: 0-312-30764-0

November 04, 2003

Death & the Jubilee, David Dickinson

A fine amusement, a thriller/mystery novel set near the end of Victoria's reign - Irish nationalists plot to fire on the parade; German ones plot the comeuppance of the whole empire. No glaring historical anachronisms, but no glorious writing or historical insights, either. And the main character wasn't very interesting, although it seems to me he should have been, a Victorian gentleman should have been more passionate and more conflicted about working as a detective and a spy. This is the second novel; perhaps the character-development happened in the first, with his marriage.

The other problem is that the writing, compared to high Victorian standards, is both bland and imprecise. Most is.

ISBN: 0-7867-1110-8

The Jupiter Myth, Lindsey Davis

Poorly bee.

The plot is another competent exercise of the tough-guy detective schtick, Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean (and what Chandler said then about the duchess applies, too!). Corrupt Roman London instead of corrupt Daly City; but beatings, racketeering, secrets in warehouses.

Falco now has a wife (the duchess) and children and they travel with him; in my favorite scene he pauses to help his small daughter nurse a poorly bee back to health. Actually, this leads a bit to the development of the plot, I think it made the reckless old-flame gladiatrix even more reckless.

Davis explains, in an endnote, how many of the places and incidents she puts in Roman London are plausible, given recent archaeological discoveries there, but are not nor are meant to be accurate precursors of the real remains. The London Bridge appears, of course; at this time a shaky rebuild of the one lost to Boudicca.

The dedication sounds like a translation from Latin:

Now look here; you had better not expect half a page of sentimental guff. If you are a treasure and an inspiration and a dear friend who has suffered a year of stress, I shall certainly not say so. This is a British dedication, after all!

ISBN: 0-89296-777-3

Sherlock Holmes and the Seven Deadly Sins Murders, Barry Day

Muchly more of the same - not an extension of the Holmes world like The Beekeeper's Apprentice, but a new old Holmes story.

ISBN: 0-9537659-5-4

September 23, 2003

Wobble to Death, Peter Lovesey

Short, 'fair' mystery set in an improbable corner of Victorian England. The 'wobble' is a kind of sporting event, a six-day cumulative distance race (on an indoor track). 'Pedestrian' refers specifically to one who walks for sport (everyone walked, after all).

Also read Mad Hatter's Holiday, same author, same detective, set in Brighton, not quite as good (or characters less appealing).

ISBN: 0 14 00 5557 6

September 07, 2003

Slightly Abridged, Ellen Pall

A few days ago I scorned a book for being too like others in its genre. It's a cheap shot at books in any genre; likeness is what collects them. Slightly Abridged makes hay of its differences, though, using them to exercise the expectations.

What it's most like is an Amanda Cross mystery; the series investigator is a well-off, thorny ex-English professor. (Surely this is irrelevant to solving murders, except in the genteel-coy confines of cozies.) They differ in character: Boston to New York, confident to self-conscious, professorial to romance novelist. These differences are well enough represented in the way they solve their mysteries, and since that is the machine of the genre, having it chug out different solutions for slightly different input is a pleasure.

Pall's novel would be a pleasure anyway, mostly for its representation of a cautious and talky new romance. The MacGuffin is interestingly gaudy and plausible in the protagonist's life. A few sentences reminded me of the late Sarah Caudwell, though it doesn't keep up that standard.

ISBN: 0-312-28185-4

July 02, 2003

I forget

A week of frivolous reading in between furniture-moving, and only one book has stuck to my memory at all - Earl Emerson's Into the Inferno. Intrigue romance industrial poisoning glow-in-the-dark fires cultists seven days to live! And a main character who really is a cad, although he gets better under duress.

ISBN: 0345445910

May 30, 2003

Flashback, Nevada Barr

Another thriller novel, with a series character overcoming physical trauma to hunt down a murderer. I think it's more catharsis than cathexis by my (possibly wrong, very probably oversimplified) definition: more pleasure from imagining oneself brave than from licking over the violence that required bravery. I was a little dubious that the adding-up of minor traumas to Anna Pigeon wouldn't have left her incapacitated; but that's what makes her Heroic.

Other good bits: cleverness and courage from minor characters, including some who could have been played just for comic relief; a dramatic setting, another of the National Parks; and a historical mystery, mostly good for adding color to the setting, but a respectable tragedy in itself.

ISBN: 0-399-14975-9

Keeping Watch, Laurie R. King

Of course this is good. I think its predecessor Folly does more with less material, but ...Watch is impressive for handling more material tightly.

It's very suspenseful; is a Vietnam vet story and two kinds of thriller story; but puts its punch into describing fear, not violence itself.

The Okanagan University College defines, among other terms of art,

CATHARSIS: In Aristotle's poetics, the purgation of the emotions, as if exposure to an affective work of art could cure imbalance of the passions or psychological distress. There has always been debate as to whether this was what Aristotle actually had in mind. In any case, the idea crops up frequently in subsequent expression theory and the like.

CATHEXIS: A Freudian term designating the investment of libidinal energy (see fetish, libido) in an idea, image, object or person. Critics fond of discerning appetitive drives in a work of art might be inclined to make use of the concept.
I remembered an simpler comparison: that catharsis presents us with images of what we fear, and cathexis with images of what we want. I often feel that works about violence think of their presentation of violence as cathartic, but frame the presentation of the violence as though they were cathectic (sp?). I'm pretty squeamish, so it doesn't take much good camerawork to set this off in me; I stopped watching Buffy somewhere in the second season because it was making me feel icky. (Did Aristotle cover 'feel icky' in the Poetics?)

No icky from Laurie King, despite a string of fascinatingly-horrible subjects.

ISBN: 0-553-80191-0

April 10, 2003

Death at Wentwater Court, Carola Dunn

It's a fine little 1920s mystery, 'Arry, with toffs and Scotland Yard and the Modern Woman and all. Hand me another.

Has anyone written Death 'Twixt Wind and Water yet? in which Harriet was going to immortalize Peter in the turn-up of some worm's cuff? Google says fanfic has taken it up, but the links thereto are dead.

Update: but I did find the Invisible Library catalogue of imaginary books known only from their mention in existing books. Fforde, look out.

ISBN: 1-57566-750-9

So wrote clew.

March 11, 2003

Love and the Single Corpse, Annie Griffin

Lightly written murder mystery, although the reasons for the murders are not light or taken lightly; the aging-Marin background of the series characters is the main character of the book, and comes in for a lot of affectionate mockery.

ISBN: 0-425-17612-6

So wrote clew.

March 05, 2003

The Fractal Murders, Mark Cohen

I don't think anywhere near enough use is made of fractals in the plot of the book, and nothing at all in the form; total MacGuffin. They aren't misrepresented, but any other woo-woo technology or theory would have done as well. The depressive ex-Marine JAG private eye makes a lot more of his reading in philosophy; I hope his summary of philosophy is as reliable as his summary of fractals, because I quite liked this:
A man in the undifferentiated mode never questions the meaning of his own life or faces up to the fact that his existence is defined by the culture fate threw him into. He never recognizes his own thrown-ness, but blindly accepts the existence he has inherited.

A man in the inauthentic mode recognizes that his existence is a result of coincidence -recognizes his own thrown-ness, but simply substitutes some other role for the life he inherited. It is like a man who is born into a family of farmers and decides he's going to be a doctor rather than a farmer. He has substituted one rule for another without recognizing that both roles were created by the culture or world he was thrown into.

A man's recognition of his own thrown-ness sometimes leads to what Heidegger called anxiety. Anxiety is the result of man's realization that anything he might possibly do has already been defined in advance by the culture he was thrown into. He begins to think about death. When is unable to face up to the possibility of his own non being or nothingness, Heidegger referred to this as fallen-ness. Instead of dealing with his anxiety the man who experiences fall in this returns to the inauthentic mode.

But some that experience anxiety are able to face up to their own thrown-ness and their own death. While all ways of life are defined by the culture we inherited, each of us has to die on our own. Given that we are responsible for our own death, we become responsible for our own life. Heidegger called this care. In caring for the world, each man makes the most of his own possibilities - even if those possibilities were originally dictated by the culture he was thrown into. A man who adopts this attitude lives in what Heidegger called an authentic mode of existence.

ISBN: 0-9718986-0-X

So wrote clew.

February 08, 2003

Ex-Libris, Ross King

really excellent chase-object, bits of Elizabethan vocabulary fitted in where they can be understood from context, enigmatic and disastrous characters clustered around an endearingly timid narrator. Wonderful sense of how global the affairs of Western Europe had become by the 1600s, so that distant events troubled the wharves in London.

And the chase-object is really excellent, especially since I was expecting it to be a Boojum.

So wrote clew.

January 16, 2003

The Blue Last, Martha Grimes

A thorough Richard Jury novel. The series bit-characters are beginning to seem mechanical to me, but the mystery is so well done that I can't think of anything to say about it that wouldn't be a spoiler.

Because it's a Jury novel, his finding the solution does not advance the cause of human happiness in any clear way. I should look up the philosophy of pragmatism.

So wrote clew.

January 03, 2003

Appetite for Murder, Cecille Lamalle

Why are murder mysteries with recipes such a successful genre? Appetite for Murder is an okay light mystery, bludgeonings, comedy, social commentary and caricatures and all, but really any proximity to death by bludgeoning makes me that much less interested in ramekins of chicken.

Recipes turn up in series 'cozy' mysteries, making them 'culinary cozies'. They're awfully long on desserts, though some are tea cozies. Spenser doesn't give recipes that I recall, but Robert B. Parker goes on enough about his cooking to out Spenser as a crypto-cozy. Ha! We knew it, drippy romance, spoiled pet and all.

Wimsey justifies murder-mystery-writing to Harriet as a vision of a world in which justice is done in the end. Doing justice isn't easy in their world; they have moral debates and nervous breakdowns and marital grief over it. (When are Strong Poison and Gaudy Night going to be republished with recipes?) The cozies make it a bit too easy, which is to our discredit, if we no longer imagine achieving anything hard, or maybe to our credit, if we're imagining common or domestic virtues as natural allies to Justice with her book, blindfold and sword.

I haven't established whether the recipes are generally any good.

So wrote clew.

November 07, 2002

WWII mysteries

The Chinese Chop, Juanita Sheridan
Two O'Clock, Eastern Wartime, John Dunning
Sweet and Lowdown, Lise McClendon

The Dunning and McClendon mystery novels are set in and just before WWII, but are modern; Sheridan's is set in 1949, and was written then. Read the modern ones first, since they're really better mysteries, but keep an eye out for Sheridan's books; the modern recreation of her times may make you curious about how they saw themselves.

Two O'Clock... is the best mystery of the three; it also makes very graceful use of WWII as a background, since what the characters are worried about is not always what we think, with hindsight, they should have been worrying about. Sweet... uses the Depression and WWI to set the stage, too, so it could be an awfully depressing book, but her series character is ambiguously between being too tough to like and not tough enough to be creditable as a detective.

So wrote clew.

September 01, 2002

Head Over Heels, Judith Cutler

Another midlife academic love crisis novel! I didn't expect one; the other Cutler books I've read were more murder-mysteries and much less character-driven.

This one is silly in its outline - aging rockstar attracted to headmistress his age - but sly in the mechanics; she's boondoggled into keeping a layabout but beautiful niece, the rockstar comes by in pursuit of the niece, niece is so surpassingly irritating and bad-mannered that the charms of the headmistress are shown off.

There's also a mystery plot, but even that has a lot more to do with Who should date Who than not.

So wrote clew.

May 13, 2002

London Bridges, Jane Stevenson

I think this woman is the heir of Margery Allingham & Sarah Caudwell. This is a frothy but not a silly novel. Her short stories, in Several Deceptions, are neither frothy nor silly; the last one in the book is nearly cruel - it was almost a Wodehouse plot, but things turned out as one would expect them to actually turn out for self-centered fools: not well at all.
So wrote clew.

May 09, 2002

Chatterton, Philip Ackroyd.

Literary history mystery like Possession, but nothing so cheerful; no Chase & Race, no fame before death, less gripping invented work. Good, but suffers by comparison. (Recommended by Byatt; in her On Histories and Stories, I think.)
So wrote clew.