29 December 2006

Bibliophile reviews To love and be wise by Josephine Tey

A belated Merry Christmas!

I apologise for the long break, but I have been working on a translation and have had neither time nor inclination to write reviews.

Series detective: Inspector Grant
No. in series: 4
Year of publication: 1950
Type of mystery: Missing person, possible homicide
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Rural England, 1950s
Some themes:

...there was never proud man thought so absurdly well of himself as the lover doth of the person loved; and therefore it was well said, that it is impossible to love, and to be wise.
Francis Bacon (1561-1626), "On Love"

I thought it suitable to give the relevant full quote from which the book's title is derived, as it has a bearing on the story told in the book.

Said story is a delicious detective tale that knowingly and effectively breaks one of Van Dine's principal rules of detective fiction, but since it would give away too much to reveal which one, I will leave it to you to find out. I will say that a character in the book manages to disprove Bacon's statement, but to find out more you must read the book.

Story: Leslie Searle, an accomplished and famous photographer of the rich and famous, is invited to stay with Walter Whitmore, a famous radio show host, at his country house. Leslie charms almost everyone there, not the least Walter's fiancée, Liz, much to her mother's consternation. Walter and Leslie decide to make a book together about a river that runs through the village, Walter writing the text and Leslie taking the photographs. On the night of the fourth day of their journey down the river by canoe, Leslie disappears without a trace and Inspector Grant of the Scotland Yard is called in to investigate what proves to be a very difficult case indeed.

Review: The story is enjoyable and is told in a flowing and slyly humorous style, even when the suspicions of foul play are the strongest. Tey is the only author I have come across who can make Georgette Heyer's light and humorous style look ponderous by comparison. I wouldn't have noticed this except the book I read ahead of this one was a Heyer mystery.

I can't say much about the plotting, as it would give away too much, but let's suffice to say that if you enjoy detective stories only if they follow the rules slavishly, you will probably be upset by it. If, on the other hand, you enjoy seeing how the rules can be broken while still telling an enjoyable story, you will enjoy it – perhaps even love it – as I did.

Rating: A highly enjoyable and somewhat unorthodox detective tale. 4 stars.

17 December 2006

Bibliophile reviews the movie Mýrin (Jar City)

The film Mýrin (The Mire)is based on the book of the same title by Icelandic crime writer Arnaldur Indriðason. It was published in English as Jar City (also as Tainted Blood). I read the book a couple of years ago but never got round to reviewing it. Here is a link to Maxine's review: Jar City review.

The story begins with the discovery of the body of a murdered man in a basement apartment in a neighbourhood known as Norðurmýri, The North Mire, so-called because that is what was there before the houses were built. He turns out to have been a vicious thug and the investigation soon leads the police to start trying to find the victims of crimes he committed years before and which may explain why he was murdered. They also decide to re-open the investigation into the disappearance of one of his cronies many years before, an investigation that was closed with what Erlendur, the leading investigator, thinks is suspicious haste.

The movie was directed by Baltasar Kormákur who is probably Iceland's best film director right now. Being an actor himself, he is good at getting the best out the actors he directs and it shows in his films.

When I first heard that Ingvar E. Sigurðsson was to play the lead, Erlendur, I was not convinced that he could do it properly. For one thing, he looks nothing like what I had imagined Erlendur to look like, and secondly he is about 10 years too young and youthful-looking to boot. I need not have worried – Ingvar is one of Iceland's best actors and pulled the role off very convincingly, as did Ágústa Eva Erlendsdóttir who played his daughter, drug addict Eva, and Atli Rafn Sigurðsson as a young father driven to desperation by the tragic death of his daughter, to name only three of the characters. Everyone was, in fact, very good in their roles.

The changes to the story from book to movie were minor and were, in my opinion, necessary for the cinematic adaptation. The movie is filmed in colours that reflect the moods of people and nature, the colours being warm and homey inside Erlendur's apartment, cold and stark in an early funeral scene, and at other times sepia coloured or almost monotonous. Nothing is beautified, the people look like people, not beautifully made up dolls like in most Hollywood movies, and nature looks by turns harsh and beautiful. The director has not given much into the mania common among Icelandic film makers to show off the country to its best advantage with endless landscape shots but has mostly stuck to a few aerial views of roads winding through black and green lava fields which look very good but get a bit repetitious after the second one. In between are scenes of Icelandic weather at its howling, windy worst.

In her review of the book, Maxine mentions an impossibility that mars the story somewhat. That particular plot device is made a little clearer and more believable in the movie. It takes massive suspension of disbelief to accept that anyone could break the coding system Decode Genetics uses to hide the identities of the people included in their genetics studies, but having seen what can happen if many enough people are careless enough, the explanation of how the system was bypassed that is given in the film becomes somewhat believable.

The story as it is told in the movie is an emotional rollercoaster, often sad, even tragic, but sometimes very funny as well, especially in scenes involving Erlendur's young colleague, yuppie type Sigurður Óli who fancies himself to be a cop like the ones you see in American crime movies (right down to doughnuts and take-out coffee). It says something about the skill of the filmmakers that you can laugh at a movie that has so much ugliness and tragedy in it as Mýrin does.

Many reviewers have called Mýrin the best movie ever made in Iceland. I can not be a judge of that, as I have not seen all Icelandic movies, but I will venture to say that it is the best and most realistic crime movie ever made in Iceland. See it if you can – while it may lose something in translation the visual aspects are still the same. I also recommend reading the book beforehand as it can only add to the enjoyment of the movie.

Rated 8 out of a possible 10.

06 December 2006

Bibliophile reviews The Roads to Sata (travel) by Alan Booth

Subtitle: A 2.000 mile walk through Japan
Year published: 1985
Genre: Travel (non-fiction)
Setting & time: Japan, 1980's

Booth had been a resident of Japan for 7 years and spoke the language fluently when he embarked on a walk from the country's northernmost corner at Cape Soya, to it's most southernmost, Cape Sata, in an effort to learn to understand Japan and the Japanese better. The book describes his mostly lonely journey of several months, his visits to tourist sites along the way and to places no tourist would ever go, and his encounters with people that ranged from absurd to funny to near tragic. He met people who refused to believe he spoke Japanese even though he did, people who viewed him like a circus freak and people who were afraid of him, but also people who accepted him with open arms and showed him kindness and friendship.

The most striking things about this travelogue, apart from the high quality writing, is the author's feeling of alienation towards his adopted homeland. He desperately wants to understand the culture of Japan, but the Japanese seem for the most part to be inscrutable to him. There is an aura of sadness over much of the book and while he did experience all sorts of weather, somehow it remains in the mind as a description of a rather rainy journey. While not very much happened to him in the way of adventure, the book is still an interesting and well written account of one man's attempt to understand a foreign culture and where he himself stands in relation to it.

Reviewers who are familiar with Japan and the Japanese say the book gives an accurate account of what any foreigner can experience upon visiting the country, and some have said it should be required reading before visiting Japan.

Rating: An interesting tale of a journey from one end of Japan to the other that deserves to become a travel classic. 4+ stars.

05 December 2006

Mystery author #26: Catherine Aird

Title: Henrietta Who?
Series detective: Detective Inspector Sloan
No. in series: 2
Year of publication: 1968
Type of mystery: Murder, identity
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Rural England, 20th century, post WW2

Story: Grace Jenkins is found dead, a hit-and-run victim, in the middle of a village road, and her autopsy shows two things: her death was no accident and she can't possibly be the biological mother of Henrietta, the young woman she has brought up as her daughter. But who was she then, and what's more important: who is Henrietta? She and her boyfriend, and DI Sloan and his men race to try to find the answers, which prove to be, if not entirely unexpected for the reader, rather shocking for the characters.

Review: Here is a genuine old-fashioned mystery with a classical twist. I can't say too much about it, as the whole story hinges of it, but it is about identity that may or may not have to do with the murders that take place in the story. The reader of course suspects certain things about Henrietta right away, and is either disappointed or happy when they turn out to be true. There is only one early clue that points in the direction of the killer, and it is so small that you can miss it if you blink at the wrong moment, but once the police have established who their favourite suspect is, the reader has pretty much figured out the same thing as DI Sloan.

Rating: A somewhat predictable but enjoyable mystery about murder and identity. 3+ stars.
Title: The Body Politic
Series detective: Detective Inspector Sloan
No. in series: 13
Year of publication: 1989
Type of mystery: Murder, whodunnit, whydunnit
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: England, 20th century, post WW2

Mining engineer Alan Ottershaw accidentally kills a man in a (fictional) Arab country, which calls for an automatic sentence of death. He escapes to England but dies while participating in the re-enactment of a medieval battle. His death seems to be natural but after the cremation something mysterious is found among his ashes that indicates he could have been murdered. The mining company and the British government had good reasons for wanting him dead, as the country involved was the only country in the world where a certain (fictional) a metal important in some way for the military was mined, and the king had announced that unless Ottershaw be handed over, he would confiscate the company's assets in the country and drive them out. DI Sloan is at first baffled by the case, but things start to become clear once he begins to recreate what happened on the day of the battle re-enactment.

Rating: Well plotted story but rather colourless writing. 2+ stars.
Title: After effects
Series detective: Detective Inspector Sloan
No. in series: 15
Year of publication: 1996
Type of mystery: Murder, whodunnit, whydunnit
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: England, 20th century, post WW2

Story: When a suspicious relative complains to the police about the death of his grandmother, who was taking part in a clinical drug trial, the West Calleshire police begin a standard suspicious death investigation that quickly turns into one of murder when the doctor directing the trials is found murdered, his suicide having been unsuccessfully faked. The pharmaceutical company directors seem to have something to hide, and some animal rights activists who oppose animal drug testing are also under suspicion. It is up to Sloan and co. to unravel the mystery and find out whodunnit and why.

Rating: A twisty but somewhat colourless mystery. 2+ stars.

Author & series review:
The DI Sloan series celebrated its 40th anniversary this year, and the books number 21, the latest having been published in 2005. As in all series about the same people that cover such a long time, the author has, at least in the two newer books I read, been very careful not to make them too easy to date, in case anyone wonders why Sloan has not risen higher in the police force in all this time, and in fact seems to be pretty much the same age in all the books. As in many cosy series, there is a certain timelessness about the stories which means they could have taken place any time from the end of World War II to the end of the 20th century, or perhaps it's better to say that they happen in a sort of time vacuum.

Aird does not spend a lot of words on characterisation, and the stories are for the most part made up of narrative. I wish I could say something positive about the writing style, but I must admit that it is rather bland, and it is the plotting that makes the reader what to read on, not the writing. Aird is good at carefully hiding key clues so that if the books are not read with full attention, they can easily be missed. The first, and in my opinion, the best of the three, is predictable to a point, but only because it is about a classic mystery theme that has pretty much been covered in all possible ways, namely identity. Once one has figured out that identity, the killer is obvious, even though there are not a whole lot of actual clues. The latter two books, however, are more deviously plotted and the resolutions are somewhat unexpected.

These are all books you read for the plot, not for sparkling dialogue, characterisations or excellent writing, although there is some humour in them. I don't think I will especially seek out books by Aird in the future, but I have nothing against reading more of them, should the opportunity present itself.

Bibliophile reviews The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley

This is the first of my From the Stacks challenge books I finish reading.

Year published: 1959
Genre: Biography, expatriate memoir

Robin and Tilly Grant and their 5 year old daughter, Elspeth, came to Thika in Kenya in 1912 to start a coffee farm. The book tells the story of the first years of their life on the farm until World War 1 started and Robin joined the army and Tilly and Elspeth left for England. With great clarity and beautiful prose Elspeth writes about the people, both Africans and European settlers, about nature and animals and events. She writes about what she saw as a child, but with an adult’s insight. The narrative is somewhat disjointed at times, as she often jumps years forwards in the middle of a sentence to show what the future outcome of some action or event was, and sometimes I was not sure she had gone back to the same place in the narrative where she had been before the jump. Her story gives an insight into the problems faced by the white settlers of Kenya and often reveals how woefully unprepared they were for the life that awaited them out on the African plains and how little they understood the native culture and ways of thinking.

While I enjoyed the book, it did not grab a hold of me like some memoirs have, possibly because I found myself unable to “enter” the story. Often, when reading about other countries, I have been able, to an extent, to feel I am there while reading, but I did not get this feeling when reading this book. I think this is because the author keeps a certain distance – she describes things like she’s telling a story rather than remembering things, which makes it feel more like a novel than a memoir. This is perhaps not surprising as the book was written something like 40 years after the events in it took place.

Rating: A lyrical and beautiful account of a childhood in Kenya that unfortunately reads more like a novel than a memoir. 4 stars.

03 December 2006

November 2006 reading report

I read 21 books this month, mostly mysteries. I am behind with my reviewing, for which I apologise, but I have been reading, which is much more important that writing (for me). I read books by five new mystery authors last month, and will be writing reviews on them soon.

Reviewed and upcoming:
After effects and Henrietta who?: Catherine Aird
The Demon Archer: Paul Doherty
Detection Unlimited: Georgette Heyer
The Flame Trees of Thika: Elspeth Huxley
Death in the Andamans: MM Kaye
Prepared for Murder: Cecile Lamalle
The Dogs of Riga: Henning Mankell
Gideon's Day: JJ Marric
To love and be wise: Josephine Tey

The Cat who talked to ghosts: Lilian Jackson Braun
The Homecoming: Marion Chesney
Sex, lies and online dating: Rachel Gibson
Unreliable memoirs: Clive James
Cleopatra's sister: Penelope Lively
Notes from an Italian garden: Joan Marble
Living with books: Alan Powers
Korea: A walk through the land of miracles: Simon Winchester

Rereads: (unreviewed)
Eric: Terry Pratchett
Interesting times: Terry Pratchett
Sourcery: Terry Pratchett

Bibliophile reviews News from Tartary (travel) by Peter Fleming

Year published: 1936
Genre: Travel (non-fiction)
Setting & time: China & India, 1930's

In 1935 the author and his travel companion Ella "Kini" Maillart set off from Peking to travel across Chinese Turkistan (Sinkiang) and all the way to India. The journey took them 7 months, alternatively by truck, on foot, on horseback and by camel, and without major mishaps (but many small ones). The author tells the story with wry humour (mostly at his own expense) and is often full of indignation at the natives for their treatment of their animals, while he carefully avoids admitting that he himself and his companion were also guilty of mistreatment of their own pack and riding animals. The descriptions of the landscapes are often beautiful, while the descriptions of the people they meet are unsentimental and sometimes somewhat coloured by British feelings of superiority, i.e. because he was British he seems to have felt that naturally he knew better how to do things that the natives did (it was sometimes true, but not always).

Review: Here is another of those "just because" journeys that, much like Eric Newby's trip in A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, was probably made because it had never been done before by Europeans. Fleming does say that as a journalist he was interested in the political situation in the area, but it occurs to anyone who reads this book that the news he gathered could have been gained in an easier way and was, in all likelihood, unreliable and out of date by the time he got to India.

Fleming writes in an easy and flowing style, and the trademark English irony and understatement is never far away. This is one of those journeys that, while not wholly impossible, is probably in some ways a lot more difficult for outsiders to do today than it was back then, because of politics, but in other ways a lot easier – for example, my old atlas shows a railroad that, back in 1979 when the atlas was printed, covered half of the route Fleming took back in 1935.

Rating: An enjoyable and unsentimental description of a foolhardy and interesting journey. 4+ stars.