29 June 2006

Bibliophile reviews Kleifarvatn (mystery) by Arnaldur Indriðason

I have read all of Arnaldur's previous 5 books about Erlendur and co., but I have only reviewed one. I think maybe I should review the rest, at least the ones that have been translated into other languages.

German title: Kältezone Edit: the English title is The Draining Lake, translated by Bernard Scudder. Scudder died not long ago and will be sorely missed. He was an excellent tralslator.
Author: (alt. spelling) Arnaldur Indridason
Series detective: Erlendur Sveinsson and co.
No. in series: 6
Year of publication: 2004
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Reykjavík, Iceland, 2004; Leipzig, East-Germany, 1950's
Number of deaths: 2
Some themes: Espionage, missing persons, socialism

Story: A scientist checking the water levels of lake Kleifarvatn discovers a human skeleton in a dried-up section of the lake bottom. This marks the beginning of a murder investigation that attempts to connect one of 5 missing men to the Russian-made radio transmitter that was dumped in the lake with the body. As the investigation rolls on, Erlendur, the officer leading the investigation, deals with personal problems while somewhere in Reykjavík a man remembers his stay as a student in East-Germany in the fifties and the tragedy that led to the death of the man in the lake.

Here's what the lake looked like around the time the story happens. It has since filled up again.

Review: This book is nearly as good as the previous two or three by Arnaldur. It is not as dark, but still just as starkly realistic. There's nothing cosy about about it, but neither is it hardboiled. He manages to make the long investigation believable, something which is quite a task since most of Iceland's real murders have been simple affairs that have been solved quickly. The scenes from East-Germany are quite realistic as well and draw up an image of the squalor of life there in the fifties and the socialist (and anti-socialist) fervour of the students.

While I am not particularly fond of police stories that include too much of the protagonists' personal problems, I will say that Arnaldur does make them somewhat interesting, and even manages to tie some of Erlendur's personal life into the crime story. What I do not like is the reiteration of events from previous books that has nothing to do with the investigation, gets longer and clumsier with each book, and slows down the action. The people themselves, especially the repeat characters, Erlendur and his team, are realistic and interesting characters, but it is possible to overdo the personal interest factor.

The story is organised in a way similar to a couple of other of Arnaldur's books, including Silence of the Grave, with alternating modern chapters about the police, their work and personal lives, and flashback chapters where the story of the events that lead up to the crime is told. The flashback chapters where a character reminisces about Leipzig are short(ish) and take up not quite every other chapter, and while we know he is somehow involved, we don't get to know how or who died until near the end of the story, although of course there are suspicions.

The final paragraph of this review contains a spoiler, which is why I have moved it to the bottom of the review, where you can read it if you don't mind spoilers.

Rating: A good, solid, realistic murder mystery. 3+ stars, would have been 4+ except for reasons that are stated above and in the spoiler (see below).
A little lower....
...almost there...
...here we go:

Lastly, I would like to mention that there is a suicide ending. It becomes pretty obvious by the middle of the story that the character involved has little or nothing to live for, and in fact Arnaldur manages to make it seem that the suicide is something the character has been thinking about for a long time. I'm not saying it excuses the cliché, but it is in character for the person, which goes a long way towards excusing the ending (but not quite).

27 June 2006

Reading challenges

I’ve been thinking about reading challenges. Not just possible future 52 Books challenges for myself, but reading challenges in general.

A reading challenge is a good way to get some focus into your reading if you feel you don't know what to read next, you want to expand your reading horizons, become an expert on a given subject, or break out of a bad reader's block. Hunting down the books can be half the fun if you assign yourself a specific set of books and they turn out to be out of print or otherwise hard to find.

Different challenges suit different people. Some may do a modest book-a-week challenge for one year or plan to read all of a specific author’s books, while others may be more ambitious and embark on a lifetime reading plan of every book mentioned in Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon. Some may want to cover every number in the Dewey catalogue. Including the fractions would be a bit too much for most, but by taking whole numbers only you would get 999 books and many years of targeted reading.

Here is a list of more possible reading challenges:
*All the books that have won a specific literary award, for example the Pulitzer, the Nobel, the Booker, the Golden Dagger, etc. Here's a listof some literary awards.
*The 100 best novels or non-fiction books of the 20th century.
*An A-Z challenge: read, in alphabetical order, books whose author’s last (or first) name begins with a given letter of the alphabet, or read books with ABC titles.
*One book from or about every country in the world, a chosen continent, or the states of the USA.
*Arctic and Antarctic expeditions.
*Books about setting world records.
*Books that have been banned or challenged.
*The books that formed the foundations of a specific genre, for example science fiction or mystery.
*Every book in a given series, for example Star Trek, The Cat Who... or Discworld.
*One book from each year of the 20th century.
*The top best-sellers from a given period of time.
* Or you can do an unfocused challenge, like I did in my first 52 books challenge. The only rules were that I could not read the same author twice, rereads were only allowed if I had forgotten what the book was about, each book had to belong to a different sub-genre than the last, and I would try to read as many new genres as possible.

Edit: Readers, if you have suggestions for interesting reading challenges, I would like to see them. Post ideas or links in comments.

I have received one suggestion so far - read the comments to see what Tim had to say.

New entries added to the Bibliowords glossary

Take a look

23 June 2006

Bibliophile reviews A Really Cute Corpse

Author: Joan Hess
Series detective: Claire Malloy
No. in series: 4
Year of publication: 1988
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Amateur
Setting & time: Arkansas, USA, 1980’s
Number of corpses: 2
Some themes: Beauty pageants, politics (and politicians), the American Dream

Story: When Claire Malloy’s friend is hurt while showing a bunch of beauty pageant contestants their moves, she ropes Claire into helping her to get the pageant going. Someone seems to be trying to injure and/or scare the reigning Miss Thurberfest, who is in town to crown her successor. Some suspect the girl is just trying to attract attention, but when she is found dead in her dressing room no-one is sure what is going on any more. A local politician and his assistant may be involved and the owner of the theatre where the pageant is to take place has been behaving suspiciously. But Claire’s biggest worry is that her friend seems to be harbouring a secret she is unwilling to share.

Review: I first became acquainted with Joan Hess’ writings when I picked up a copy of one of her Arly Hanks mysteries, Misery Loves Maggody. Having lived in a small town for half my life, I was able to appreciate her very funny descriptions of small town people and small town thinking and even found one or two people I could have sworn came from the town I grew up in. This is my first Claire Malloy mystery, and while it didn’t quite have the depth of the previous book I read by the author (which handled a very disturbing subject, much more disturbing than murder, in a way that really made one think about it), I found it just as entertaining. Claire is a person I quite like, even if she does, out of pure contrariness, have a couple of TSTL moments, but, as we mystery readers know, sometimes a mystery just wouldn’t be as good without the protagonist doing something stupid. At least she admits to having qualms before plunging in. Hess doesn’t hesitate to allow her protagonist to be ridiculous at times, which is quite endearing. There are few things in mysteries I hate as much as perfect protagonists, and Claire certainly has her flaws.

I love the way Hess draws a convincing parallel between the training and grooming of beauty queens and politicians. When one thinks about it, they are really in the same trade: that of making others like them enough to vote for them, and the way she draws the parallels, there really is not that much difference between the ways they are trained. I am now reading another Hess book (a Maggody tale) and have another Mrs. Malloy book on my night table, ready to be read once I finish the other one. I may write an author review based on those books.

Rating: An entertaining mystery to while away an afternoon with. 3 + stars.

22 June 2006

Mystery author # 20: S.T. Haymon

Title: Death and the Pregnant Virgin
Series detective: Ben Jurnet
No. in series: 1
Year of publication: 1980
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Rural village in England, 1980’s
Number of corpses: 4
Some themes: Religion, greed, relationships

Picture pending.

Story: Five years before the beginning of the story, a dog digging in a badger run on the outskirts of the village of Mauthern Barbary unearthed a madonna statue thought to have been destroyed in the time of Henry VIII. The madonna, which looks more like an African fertility goddess than the usual demure Mary, is thought to give the gift of fertility to women who have been unable to conceive. On the fifth anniversary of the unearthing, thousands of couples flock to the village to pray to the madonna for her blessing. A young woman, Rachel Cass, works at the shrine and is loved and respected by all, some even claiming she is a saint. When the shrine is opened to the worshippers on the morning of the anniversary, Rachel is found inside with her head bashed in. Detective Inspector Ben Jurnet of the Norwich police happens to be there, and is given the task of leading the investigation. An autopsy reveals that Rachel was four months pregnant, but also that she was a virgin, which leads some people to speculate about a thwarted second coming. Three more deaths will ensue before a sentence in an old book and information gleaned from an old account book will finally lead Jurnet towards the truth. I am therefore counting this as a bibliomystery.

Review: This is a marvellous first book: well-plotted and well-written, with an interesting setting and believable characters. The setting is so beautifully dawn that you want it to be real, and the characters are rounded and human, which is for example seen in their different reactions to the madonna which range from ecstatic worship to repulsion.

The central theme of the story is religion and religiosity. The shrine and the village church are not just parts of the background, but play a part in the story, especially their respective guardians, the vicar and the finder of the statue. Neither is completely acceptable, the vicar being a repulsive character and the shrine guardian being slightly kooky, but the cult comes off as the better religion through being more benevolent and open than the rigid Christianity of the Church of England. Judaism is slightly involved as well, but you will have to read the book to discover in what way.

Ben Jurnet is a likeable character, and I wouldn’t mind reading more books about him, as he seemed about to make a momentous decision at the end of this book (which of course is a skilfully used classic hook). Jurnet, at least in this book, is a mixture of the deductive detective and the intuitive detective, meaning that while there is reasoning based on clues behind much of his detection, it is an intuitive flash that, supported by logic, finally allows him to solve the case. Since the reader is allowed to see all the clues and the intuitive flash, the story still plays by the rules, giving the reader an equal opportunity to solve the case.

There is a clever twist near the end that is teasingly foreshadowed several times in the course of the narrative, but in such a way as to make it very difficult to deduce the meaning of the clues. There is, therefore, a lovely “a-ha!” moment at one point which alone would make the story worth reading, even if the setting and the characters were not as enjoyable as they are.

All in all, I liked this book and will be on the lookout for more of Haymon’s work.

There will not be an author review until I have read at least one more Haymon book to compare with this one.

Rating: A suspenseful look at religion, murder, and greed. 4 stars.

21 June 2006

Bibliophile reviews The Daughter of Time (mystery)

Author: Josephine Tey
Series detective: Inspector Alan Grant
No. in series: 5 of 6
Year of publication: 1951
Type of mystery: Murder, historical
Type of investigator: Professional, aided by an amateur
Setting & time: A hospital in England, 1950's
Some themes: History, regicide

Story: Inspector Grant is lying in bed, recovering from a broken leg and other injuries sustained while trying to capture a criminal. He suffers from boredom until an old friend suggests he try working out some unsolved murder. A portrait of Richard III and people’s comment that the picture looks more like the image of a victim or a judge than a cold-blooded killer gives him interest in trying to discover the true events behind the mystery of the princes in the Tower , possibly the most notorious regicide in the history of England. He needs someone to do research for him, and with the help of a friend he enlists the aid of a young historian who starts ploughing through old documents in search of the truth.

While the characters in the modern part of the story are all fictional, the historical stuff in the story is all about real people and real events and the research is all real. Tey seems to have chosen to publish the deductions she and others had made about the events in a fictional setting, as it really is impossible to say anything for certain about what really happened so long after the events took place. Others have tried to do the same thing in learned essays and books and have failed to reach a convincing conclusion.

Review: Trying to review what some have called the best murder mystery ever written is a daunting task, but I will try anyway.

In terms of detection, it is undoubtedly a masterpiece. We get to see the detective’s mind at work on the case from beginning to end – which is more than we do in many mysteries because few authors have the skill to allow us to see all that goes on in the sleuth’s mind without giving away the villain too soon. We see how Grant gathers evidence for and against his hypothesis, how he follows his clues and makes his deductions from them step by logical step. On the other hand, the story is short of action, most of the interesting characters are dead (meaning we only get to know about their personalities from what can be deduced from historical papers – which isn’t much), and one has to be interested in the subject to get up any kind of enthusiasm for it. This, for me, is the story’s weakest point.

The subject matter is very English. This mystery has gone down in English history and made some people there wonder for centuries. When I was studying British history as part of my B.A. we had to read about the more famous English monarchs, plus of course Richard III was mentioned in connection with the play that Shakespeare wrote about him, but I don’t remember giving it any more thought than “wicked man – got what he deserved” and that was it. I certainly never wondered what really happened to the princes in the Tower, but I guess it might be different for someone living in Britain and reading English history, especially someone of an enquiring mind and with an interest in mysteries. I will say that Tey’s writing does manage to make the subject interesting on an intellectual level, but I never got excited about the outcome on a personal level.

My thinking is that while this may be the best British mystery of all time, I can’t see it being of so much interest to an international audience that they would put it at number one, except of course some who are consummate anglophiles.

Rating: A well-written and convincing hypothetical solution to a true historical mystery. 3 + stars.

P.S. People have been wrangling over this subject for centuries, and there is good proof, just as good as what is presented in the story, for a solution contrary to Grant’s.

P.P.S. If you're wondering about the title, there is an old proverb that goes: "Truth is the Daughter of Time"

19 June 2006

Bibliowords glossary

Since I sometimes use somewhat specialised vocabulary in my reviews that may baffle some of my visitors (read: I got a complaint) I decided to set down a glossary of words and acronyms I use that may not have made their way into mainstream dictionaries, just in case someone stumbles over them. Some I have used, some I may use later on.

In addition to specifically mystery-related vocabulary, I occasionally use more general literary terms like dénouement, foreshadowing or Deus ex machina. Explanations of these can be found in many dictionaries or any good glossary of literary terms, several of which can be found on the web. Or you can use One Look.

I will be adding more terms as they come along.


Bibliomystery: A mystery that features books, manuscripts, book writing, bookshops, libraries, publishers, booksellers, authors, reviewers or any other book-related subject prominently in the storyline or setting. 

Cosy (alt. American spelling: cozy): Short for cosy mystery. So called because they are comfortable reads. This category of mystery is generally defined as a mystery where the violence takes place off-stage and few or no gruesome descriptions are given, the setting is small, usually a country village, small town or a country house, but can be any fairly closed-off location such as a train, ship or small island, there is a small group of suspects and the detective is usually an amateur or a private investigator who solves the case by power of observation and reasoning and/or special knowledge of some subject, like human nature, gardening or antiques. Cosies tend to come in series and when they do there is often a running theme involved, like a bookstore, quilting, cooking, cats, gardening or what have it. The majority of authors seem to be women and many of the sleuths are female as well. Writers include Lilian Jackson Braun, Georgette Heyer, Dorothy L. Sayers, and of course Agatha Christie, whose Miss Marple still reigns as the queen of the cosy sleuths.

Crime magnet: This is a series character who is the kind of person you would not expect to ever be involved in a serious crime or a criminal investigation except maybe once or twice in their lifetime (and then it's more likely to be any crime other than murder), yet they keep stumbling over corpses and investingating murders and other serious crimes over and over. I am not counting PIs among them, because although most real-life PIs never have to deal with anything worse than cheating spouses or insurance fraud, they do have some training in investigation techniques and therefore count among the professionals.

Firstbookitis: Typical mistakes found in the works of inexperienced writers. Includes unnatural dialogue, story threads that go nowhere, disappearing characters, discrepancies, factual errors, wrong vocabulary for the era, etc.

Glom & the glomming urge: This is when you have the urge to read everything a certain author has written - often based on one or two books - that is so strong that you start mass buying their books or checking them out of the library in stacks to make sure you have them on hand them when you want to read them, which may be right now or whenever. (I think maybe I will devote a special blog entry to this phenomenon some time in the future).

Hook: A literary device. When used early on in a story it is designed to catch the reader's attention and keep them reading (like a fish caught on a hook). When used late or at the end of a story, it is designed to get the reader interested in reading the sequel.

Howdunnit: “how’d they do it?”: A mystery where finding out how the crime was committed is the most important thing. When not an element in whodunnits, the identity of the criminal is known or strongly suspected, but proof is lacking or alibis seem bulletproof. Some examples include short stories by R. Austin Freeman about Dr. Thorndyke and by Arthur B. Reeve about Professor Craig Kennedy. The PatriciaWentworth novel I reviewed a while ago, The Case is Closed, is also a good example.

MacGuffin.  A MacGuffin is a motivational plot item used to create something for the protagonist and the villain (when there is one) to seek or chase after. It is often an object (e.g. the Maltese falcon in the epynomous book and movies), but can also be a person (Carmen Sandiego from the computer games comes to mind), a goal (win the game, get revenge, etc.), or even something that is never fully explained. To be a MacGuffin the object/goal/person must be interchangeable and unimportant in itself (e.g. the falcon could just as easily have been the key to a safe deposit box and it could just as easily be Waldo you're looking for), i.e. the story can't hinge on it specifically, and its only role in the story must be to motivate the protagonist/villain, i.e. it can't be an active participant in the plot. This is not just a plot-driving device, it can also simply be used to create temporary conflict, make a point, or arouse curiosity. For example, people are still debating what the glowing thing in the briefcase in Pulp Fiction was, 20 years later. (Be warned: Clicking on the link can get you stuck on TV Tropes for hours upon enjoyable hours on end).

Murder magnet: See Crime magnet

Nested-doll story: A riddle inside a mystery wrapped in an enigma, or in other words: a story so full of mysteries framing other mysteries that frame yet more mysteries that they resemble a matrushka doll in their layered complexity.

Perennial read: A book I reread again and again, often once a year, but sometimes less frequently.

PI or P.I.: Private Investigator.

Reader's block: A sudden and inexplicable lack of interest in reading. May last a couple of days or a couple of years. Sometimes shows itself as a lack of interest in reading anything new. The worst thing that can happen to a true bibliophile.

Red herring: A false clue that is meant to put the reader and the sleuth off track. May be planted by the villain or may be a coincidence (i.e. planted by the author). Why it’s called a red herring

TBR: Acronym. To Be Read. Books I plan to read. Also sometimes referred to as “the stack”.

TSTL: Acronym: Too Stupid To Live. A term borrowed from romance fan vocabulary that describes supposedly sane and sensible characters who behave in such an unbelievably stoopid fashion that they deserve to die for it (and often nearly do). Tempe Brennan in Déja Dead is a good example, as are most heroines in gothic novels.

Whodunnit: Also spelled whodunit. “who done it?”: A mystery that is about finding out who committed the crime. The classic premise for mysteries. Most whodunnits have howdunit elements and some also have whydunnit elements.

Whydunnit: Also spelled whydunit. “why (they) done it?”: Usually an element in a whodunnit, but the occasional example can be found without a whodunnit element. When independent of a whodunnit, it is a story about finding out why a known criminal committed a crime. These stories usually have a strong psychological element.

16 June 2006

My TBR stack just keeps getting bigger...

...and bigger, and bigger. I think I will have to go on a stricter book diet, because this one isn't working. Cancelling the library card has made me read more of my own books, but I am accumulating them faster than I can read them.

Tuesday I went to the charity shop and bought 9 books. Today, Friday, I went back there and was about to leave with one book, when they told me they were giving away books for the day. Back in I went and left with 19 books. That's more than I read last month.

This, of course means that there will be dozens, if not hundreds of new books there on Monday. Bbbbwwwwaaaaaahhhhhaaaaa!

10 June 2006

Mystery author #19: Robert Barnard

Note: The reviews may not seem to be quite finished. This is because I want to discuss certain points of the books in the author review at the end, where I will try to tie everything together.

Title: Death of a Mystery Writer
Original (British) title: Unruly Son
Year of publication: 1978
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Police
Main setting & time: Rural England, 1970’s
Number of corpses: 2
Some themes: Dysfunctional family, fame, mystery writing

Story: When famous mystery writer Sir Oliver Fairleigh-Stubbs is murdered with poison on his birthday, there are plenty of possible suspects, including all of his children. Inspector Meredith of the local police has to penetrate the tangle of family animosity and dig deep into the dead man’s past to find the motive.

Review: I have read that this is supposed to be a satire of the classic country house mystery. This is probably due to the rather dark, ironic and, yes, sometimes satirical humour in the story, and the rather exaggerated main characters who act as if they should be on stage playing in a Greek drama. But if anything, I would rather call it a mild parodic tribute, because frankly, it just isn't nasty enough to be a full satire, even if the murder method is one of the more unconvincing I have come across. Poisoning schemes, however clever, are generally rather unbelievable anyway. But this doesn't matter, because it's the motive, opportunity, chase, the thinking through the twists and turns of the case, questioning suspects and witnesses, the avoidance of red herrings and finally satisfying capture of the criminal that matters in a story like this. The murder method doesn't matter, but the fact of the murder does.

As mentioned before, some of the characters are mightily exaggerated, which serves to make them both sinister and funny, but they are by no means just simple stereotypes, most of them are merely very strongly delineated characters with unexpected depths (but not all of them…).

It is always interesting to read what authors have to say about their craft and the literary community, and this is no exception. Sir Oliver is a genuine hack who doesn't care if there are logical errors in his novels because he has ho faith in the intelligence of his readers, and he thinks the mystery writing community at large are a bunch of lame old nags. One can not but wonder if his venom is supposed to be due to bitterness at himself for having become a commercially successful hack rather than an Author Of Import. One also wonders if the opinions he expresses about the mystery writing community are his or Barnard's. It is after all a well known phenomenon that presenting fact as fiction tends to soften any criticism that might be levelled at it. But maybe I'm reading too much into this.

Rating: A darkly entertaining country house mystery. 3 stars.

Title: Death in a Cold Climate
Year of publication: 1981
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Tromsø, Norway, 1980’s
Number of corpses: 2
Some themes: Espionage, blackmail

Story: The nude body of a murdered young man is found on a ski slope in the sleepy northern town of Tromsø, three months after he disappeared, and this sets in motion a painstaking and thorough investigation by Inspector Fagermoe. Once he discovers the young man’s identity, her sets about to puzzle together his movements during the two days he spent in Tromsø before he was killed, and what he had been doing before his arrival that could possibly have caused his murder.

Review: Here is one very good police investigation story that I found highly enjoyable. Barnard, having lived in Tromsø for years, knows the territory, the expat community, the college community and the Norwegian way of doing things inside out and there are many in-jokes only someone who is familiar with the subjects can appreciate to the fullest. But I digress. The small-town environment, with its low incidence of serious crime and therefore ill-prepared police force, is well drawn, and you really feel the cold of the Norwegian winter through the descriptions of the weather. I met with several people in this book that I felt I knew, which may well be due to the similarity in character between Icelanders and Norwegians. Inspector Fagermoe may well be related to the lady sheriff from Fargo, with his patient, plodding method of gathering evidence, but you never doubt he is going to get his man.

Rating: A chilly murder mystery to keep you cool on a hot day. 3 stars.

Title: Death on the high C's
Year of publication:1977
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Manchester, England, 1970's
Number of corpses: 2
Some themes: Opera, professional envy, racism

Story: The Northern Opera Company is rehearsing Rigoletto when one of the company gets knocked off with an ingenious trick, and soon after the stage-door-keeper is murdered in a more direct manner. There is plenty of professional envy going around, but in the case of the young mezzo it was more like general dislike of her person and habits, and certainly there could be no-one who would want the stage-door-manager's job badly enough to murder him for it. The police go around following up leads that go nowhere until a chance remark by a member of the company sends them in the right direction.

Review: This is the least convincing of the Barnard mysteries I read and also the most entertaining. Gaylene Ffrench – I know her. Everyone knows someone like her. A lot of comedy can be squeezed out of someone like her. But Barnard doesn't stop at making this nasty would-be-prima-donna an object of comedy – he also pokes subtle fun at some of the other characters, and in the end, this is what you most enjoy about the book. The story is really about one big red herring – the police going round and round and getting nowhere – and once that is cleared up, the case is solved in a few disappointing pages.

Rating: A sparkling, operatic (in more ways than one) comedy. 2+ stars.


Author review:
I mentioned before how much I dislike the reluctance of authors who have qualms about executions to let their villains simply be caught when they are writing about countries or eras where the death penalty is in force. I don’t mean that I want to see every murderer marched to the gallows, but I think it is much more realistic for an author to find a way for the guilty not to face the death penalty, like a life sentence due to some extenuating circumstance or incarceration in a home for the criminally insane, or, if it comes to that, getting killed while trying to escape or even being pardoned (it could happen convincingly in a historical). This annoys me even more when there isn’t a death penalty involved and the suicide solution is taken by the villain. It becomes unbearably annoying when it is out of character for them to do so. Unfortunately two of the Barnard books I read had suicide endings, which have clouded my enjoyment and earned them a lower grade than they perhaps deserve. The third had a villain who was so rarely mentioned in the story in any way that could be called a clue that I would almost call it a breach of Van Dine's rule # 10, while the private lives of people who had nothing to do with the murder were discussed in detail that was clearly only padding and didn't even serve to act as red herrings. Actually, all three villains are not much mentioned in the respective novels, but in the other two there are at least hints of them being the villains. In one story it should be blatantly obvious from shortly after the murder who he is and from then on the evidence against him just keeps piling up (or rather, the proof of the other character's innocence), but Barnard repeatedly uses a clever stage magician's sleight of hand to deflect suspicion from him until just before the end. In my case it was more of a 'sixth sense' kind of thing that told me who he was than any knowing reasoning on my part, which is evidence to the genius of the author.

I like Barnard's writing style, with its sly, ironic humour, witty turn of phrase and twisting plots, but if the books I read (note they are all from fairly early on in his writing career, being nos 3, 5 and 8 of his books) are anything to go by, he has a problem with writing convincing endings. However, I plan to get my hands on some of his later books and will reserve judgment (and the awarding of stars) until I have read theml

09 June 2006

05 June 2006

Bad book-covers revisited

An irregular feature of the original 52 Books blog was Bad Book-covers, where I would pick an ugly, inappropriate or badly designed book-cover and criticise it to pieces. I think I will make this a feature of this blog as well, although it can not be a regular one as sometimes I don't come across a noteworthy bad book-cover for weeks on end. Mostly they just tend to be dull and uninspired, which makes it hard to say anything catty about them, but occasionally I come across a real doozy, which is when I start sharpening my claws...

As a life-long reader I feel that I and other readers deserve books with good covers. The cover is one of the selling points of a book, and is one of four features I consider when making an uninformed book-buying decision (to use marketing jargon). The title is another one, the back-cover introductory blurb a third, and a sample read is the fourth and final feature I consider (I only consider authors as a selling point if I'm familiar with them). If the cover is dull, bland, cheesy, salacious, garish or just plain ugly when it shouldn't be, I will think twice about buying the book. Sometimes, of course, I don't discover that the cover is bad until after I have finished reading the book. This is when it first becomes apparent whether a cover is appropriate or not.

Today's cover is a mixture of "already thought it was bad" and "didn't think it was that bad".

This is the cover for Sister Carol Anne O'Marie's first Sister Mary Helen mystery. As it describes sinister goings-on, the dark, broody background with its bad-weather colours and swirling dark clouds is quite appropriate, as is the ornate, manuscript-like lettering of the title. The woman on the cover, however, also looks decidedly sinister, with her red suit and that "I'm-going-to-hurt-you" expression combined with those almost diabolical eyes. She looks, in fact, like a psychotic Jessica Fletcher. This would be fine if the villain of the story were a nun, a fake nun or a psychotic religious type (or indeed a woman), which is what I thought when I first looked at the picture. But this is supposed to be Sister Mary Helen herself, which brings me to the "didn't think it was that bad" aspect of the picture. What makes it so bad, in the "inappropriate" sense, is that she is wearing a wine-red suit. First of all, who ever heard of a nun wearing red? Secondly, Sister Mary Helen wears a navy-blue suit. It is mentioned a couple of times in this book, and in the other book I have read in the series as well. Obviously the cover artist either didn't read the book and didn't get very accurate information to go on, or they decided to take an artist's licence with the colour of the suit because navy-blue would have made the cover too gloomy and the nun nearly invisible. Whatever the reason, this cover gets a thumbs-down from me.

04 June 2006

Bibliophile reviews Murder Makes a Pilgrimage

I have a bit of a problem with the two Robert Barnard books I read for the challenge. The endings of both were not to my liking for a reason a regular reader of this blog will be able to guess, and I want to read a third and maybe fourth Barnard to reassure myself it was an unlucky coincidence and not something that happens in all of his books. I may even slip someone into the challenge ahead of him. But here is a review of a book by an author already included in the challenge:

Author: Sister Carol Anne O’Marie
Series detective: Sister Mary Helen, w/ Sister Eileen
No. in series: 5
Year of publication: 1993
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Amateurs, police
Setting & time: Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Number of deaths: 1
Some themes: Abuse, jealousy, family

Story: Sister Mary Helen wins a trip for two to Santiago de Compostela in a sweepstake she doesn’t remember participating in, and invites her friend (and sidekick), Sister Eileen, along. At the airport they meet the rest of the winners and the slick young guide. They are: two single young women, one very attractive; and three married couples. From the start, none of the men is able to keep their eyes off the beautiful young woman, and jealousies already begin to erupt on the long flight to Spain. On the first morning in Compostela, Sister Mary Helen finds the young beauty murdered by the shrine of St. James in the cathedral. The police begin their investigation, and the nuns, experienced amateur sleuths by now, can’t help doing a bit of snooping of their own. Before long their police friends in San Francisco are dragged in as well, because the Spanish police need background information about the tourists. Someone makes an attempt on Sister Mary Helen’s life, and then a robbery attempt, and then a final, spectacular assassination attempt before the pieces of the puzzle start to come together and the investigators find out that the murdered girl had a previous connection with one of the group…

Review: This is a fine but somewhat overlong mystery. I can’t help thinking that if it had been cut by about 50 pages, it would have been better. The slightly neurotic new mother-cum-cop trying to decide whether to go back to being a cop or to take extended leave and become a stay-at-home mom really belongs in a different kind of story. As an editor I would have cut most of those scenes to shorten and streamline the story. In fact, I would have left out all the San Francisco scenes altogether, except the opening scenes where Sister Mary Helen gets the news of her prize and prepares to leave.
Apart from that, the mystery itself is good, and the story is a blend of seriousness, humour and mystery, with a pinch of action thrown in. Although the nuns do much sleuthing, they don't really solve the case. It is information from the San Francisco police that finally breaks the case open and a little help from the nuns that makes the killer confess.

Rating: Proof that the incongruity of sleuthing nuns is not just a one-off novelty. 3 stars.

02 June 2006

Bibliophile's reading report for May 2006

I have now finished a quarter of the book I'm translating, by working for an hour most mornings before going to work and 2 hours after work. Since I no longer have a TV (long story), this leaves the evenings for me to read. I managed to read 17 books in May, and expect there will be more in June, because I am taking two weeks of my summer vacation this month. The plan is to finish the rough translation of the book by the end of next week, then finish some of the the documenting and write the first draft of my thesis. I will then have until August to polish the translation and finish the thesis. I am giving myself a full 8-hour work-day for the academic work, and will use the rest of each day to relax, read, take walks, go swimming and generally enjoy being on holiday. Here are the books I read this month:

Death in a cold climate and Death of a mystery writer: Robert Barnard (mystery) (in progress)
Death on demand and Something wicked: Carolyn G. Hart (mystery)
The Englishwoman in America: Isabella Lucy Bird (travel)
Going Postal: Terry Pratchett (fantasy; reread)
Man of two tribes: Arthur W. Upfield (mystery)
Murder makes a pilgrimage: Sister Carol Anne O'Marie (mystery) (in progress)
The Thin Woman: Dorothy Cannell (mystery)
The Winter Queen: Boris Akunin (mystery)

Black sheep: Georgette Heyer (historical romance)
The Devil Earl: Deborah Simmons (historical romance)
Kitty: Marion Chesney (historical romance)
Murder must wait: Arthur W. Upfield (mystery)
Naked: David Sedaris (memoir)
Venetia: Georgette Heyer (historical romance)
What next, Doctor?: Dr.Robert Clifford (memoir)

Bibliophile reviews Man of Two Tribes

Author: Arthur Upfield
Series detective: Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte
No. in series: 20
Year of publication: 1956
Type of mystery: Murder, missing person
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Nullarbor Plain, Australia, 1950’s
Number of deaths: 1
Some themes: Kidnapping, fame-seeking, sexual power and it’s misuse, justice

Story: Bony is sent to try to find a murderess who was recently acquitted of the murder of her husband because she managed to win over the jury. She was last seen on a train going through the Nullarbor Plain, an arid, desolate area on the edge of the Australian desert, and then she disappeared mysteriously in the middle of nowhere. There is evidence that she may be involved in espionage and therefore Bony disguises himself and sets out into the Plain, ostensibly to check on some dingo traps, but really to look around for signs of the missing woman and to try to locate a mysterious helicopter known to have been in the area that night. What he discovers is something he didn’t expect at all. When he finds himself captive among a colony of convicted murderers he has to use all of his wits and survival skills to stay alive and get out of there.

Review: This has to be one of the strangest mysteries I have read. As well as being a nested-doll story, it is a hybrid between a country house-type mystery (the set-up in the middle part of the book is classic country house: a small stage with a small number of suspects, all of whom have motives for the murder), a survival thriller and a prison-break story. The storytelling goes some way towards compensating for the strange genre-crossing, but even all of Upfield’s subtle, black humour and the evocative descriptions of Australian nature and animals and the menace they present to the inexperienced only take it so far. Still, for some reason, I mostly liked it. Upfield gets a point for playing fair with the reader, unlike the previous two books I reviewed by him. The clues to the murder are all laid out for the reader to puzzle together.

Rating: Not the best I have read by Upfield, but has its good points. 3 stars.

01 June 2006

Mystery author # 18: Carolyn G. Hart

Title: Death on Demand
Series detectives: Annie Laurance and Max Darling
No. in series: 1
Year of publication: 1987
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Amateurs, murder magnets
Setting & time: USA, S-Carolina, 1980’s
Number of deaths: 4
Some themes: Books, blackmail, malice, secrets, having to prove one’s innocence

Story: Annie has recently inherited Death on Demand, a specialist mystery bookshop on the small S-Carolina island of Broward’s Rock. She has been holding regular ‘Sunday Night Specials’, a gathering of crime writers who live on the island, but when one of them threatens to expose the other’s dirty secrets, he is murdered. One of them did it, but who? Police chief Salter’s bet is on Annie, and she has to scramble to find the real killer before he arrests her. Fortunately her ex-boyfriend from New York, Max, has tracked her down and is more than willing to help.

This is the sixth crime magnet story I read for the challenge, and the second bibliomystery. In The Roaring Boy it was a play that started the killings, in this one it’s an unpublished book.

Not only does Hart write well, but she has a way of gripping the reader on page one and not letting go until the final page. I became so absorbed in Death on Demand that I missed the first act of the Eurovision Song Contest semi-finals, and was absorbed in the book through most of the program, only keeping one ear and one eye on at the proceedings while I read on. This, my friends would say, is unthinkable, because I simply love watching the ESC – the biggest, glitziest, kitschiest comedy on television.
More on the writing in the author review.

Rating: An entertaining, gripping, humorous mystery. 3+ stars.

This review contains a SPOILER for the previous book.

Title: Something Wicked
Series detectives: Annie Laurance and Max Darling
No. in series: 3
Year of publication: 1988
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Amateurs, murder magnets, police
Setting & time: USA, S-Carolina, 1980’s
Number of deaths: 2
Some themes: Acting, actors, twisted love, fraud, having to prove a loved one’s innocence

Story: Annie and Max are rehearsing Arsenic and Old Lace with the Broward’s Rock Players and planning their wedding. Annie’s nerves are frazzled by constant calls from her mother-in-law-to-be who wants to make the wedding the most spectacular show of love and togetherness ever. It doesn’t help that someone is trying to sabotage the play, with various tricks that keep getting more and more malicious until one of the actors, former beach movie actor Shane Petree, is murdered during a rehearsal. It doesn’t help Annie’s nerves one bit that circuit solicitor Willard Posey, an obnoxious boor if there ever was one, decides that Max is the culprit and sets out to prove it. Max seems calm and secure enough, but dark clouds start to gather on the horizon of Annie’s mind when the murder weapon is found in Maxi’s condo and she frantically sets out to prove his innocence, aided by police chief Salter and mystery buff Henny Brawley.

Review: Loved it. The plotting is tight and under full control, no ramblings (except perhaps the comical interfering mother-in-law-to-be, but my bet is that it’s preparation for the next book, when the wedding will presumably take place) and full of humour. Henny Brawley, the ever-changing sleuth (one day Miss Marple, the next Sister Mary Helen) provides some good-natured comic relief, while Purdy and Annie’s lawyer (the self-proclaimed greatest criminal lawyer in the United States) are wonderfully funny and accurate parodies of stereotypical lawyers and politicians.
More in author review.

Rating: A very good, very funny mystery. 4 stars.

Author review: What we have here is a definite master (or should that be mistress?) of her craft. The stories are everything cosies should be: entertaining, full of quirky and interesting characters, suitably but not too full of danger and action, and wonderfully twisty. Apart from the rather clumsy way she works the names of mystery authors and their books into the beginning chapters of DOD, I can find no fault with her style. The story telling is fast-paced and there is no dawdling beyond some descriptions of the island which are necessary for people to get a mental image of the place and some short comic interludes which serve to lighten the tension.
The books are clearly written by a mystery fan for mystery fans, as is evidenced by the many mystery authors, mysteries and series characters that are mentioned or referred to in the books. I have written down every one I wasn’t familiar with to keep for future reference.

All in all, I think I have found an author whose books I will not hesitate to buy in the future.

Next author: Robert Barnard.