21 May 2008

Mystery author # 43: Rita Mae Brown

Here is series that may or may nor have been inspired by Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series: the Mrs. Murphy books. The similarities are several: the cosy small town setting, the close-knit community full of colourful characters, and a smart cat that helps its owner solve mysteries. But this is not to say that this is clone of the Cat who… series, not at all. To start with, the reader is actually allowed to see into the mind of the animal characters, who have conversations that are often more sensible than those of the humans around them, thus firmly anthropomorphising them for the readers. The most obvious difference is that the sleuths are female and by no means rich like Braun’s Qwill. Additionally, the cats appear to be moggies rather than purebreeds, and several other species of animals are involved in the solving and resolution of the mysteries.

Series detective: Mary Minor Haristeen (“Harry”) and Mrs. Murphy, a tabby cat
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Amateur, animal
Setting & time: Crozet, Virginia, USA; modern timeless
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Title 1: Rest in Pieces
No. in series: 2
Year of publication: 1992

Story:
It is autumn in Virginia and farmer and postmistress “Harry” Haristeen has a handsome new neighbour, a rich fashion model from New York who has bought the neighbouring farm. When Harry’s corgi, Tucker, finds severed body parts in the private graveyard by the newcomer’s farm, and more body parts begin to be found around the county, suspicion at first falls on the new guy, but when another body is discovered it begins to appear that a local resident is involved, and Harry, Mrs. Murphy, and Tucker wonder who the killer could be. A series of events leads him to reveal himself in a dramatic manner, but he doesn’t count on the smart cat and feisty corgi…

From here onward you may find SPOILERS

Review:
There is rather a nice little twist near the end of this tale, and there are enough clues to keep a traditionalist mystery reader happy, but not enough to give away the story right away. So far so good, but there is hardly any investigation, just a series of coincidences that lead Harry, the neighbour and a third person into the path of the killer, and a scene where the animals come to their rescue in a manner worthy of one of the dreadful modern Dr. Dolittle movies.

Rating: A sometimes funny and continually enjoyable little mystery, but not much sleuthing going on. 2+ stars.
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Title 2: Catch as Cat Can
No. in series: 10
Year of publication: 2002

Story: When 2 locals and a stranger are murdered in Crozet in a matter of days, it sets the town abuzz. Harry is no exception, and this time she takes an active hand in investigating the case, along with her 2 cats and corgi dog and a group of her friends. In co-operation with the police the killers are caught.

Review:
This novel, unlike Rest in Pieces, is a real sleuth story. Harry actively investigates the crimes throughout the story, prodded and sometimes helped by her pets, especially Mrs. Murphy. But some of the clues are clumsy and vague and the identity of one of the criminals is unconvincing and seems like it was decided on as the rather clumsy lead-up to the climactic scene was being written. A clue crucial to the understanding of that particular criminal’s identity is written in such a way that it can only be understood as a clue if you read it as observations by Mrs. Murphy, but as it is written in the third person omniscient style it is impossible to know that until afterwards, which breaks the rule of having the reader on an even footing with the sleuths.

Rating: An entertaining and past-paced funny mystery with some unfortunate fatal weaknesses. 2+ stars.
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Overall rating:
These entertaining books are recommended for 2 types of mystery fans: cat lovers and those who like fantasy. The writing is firmly in the cosy tradition, except for some rather gruesome but fortunately brief descriptions of corpses, which jar with the cosy atmosphere and give the stories a slightly gothic flavour. It is mostly the characters and their relationships that really make the stories interesting, along with some beautifully rendered descriptions of nature and the seasons, and of course the conversations, relationships and antics of the animals.

Brown is rather fond of using the expression “richer/older than God”, which is only amusing the first time you read it and does not bear repeating in the same book, especially not when applied to the same character as it is in Rest in Pieces. Fortunately it is only used once (that I noticed) in Catch as Cat Can, to good effect.

All in all, I liked the books in spite of their flaws, and will read more when and if I come across them.

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P.S.
I am not making good progress with The Canterbury Tales. The book is so big and stiff and unwieldy (not to mention heavy) that it is painful for my hands and wrists to hold it open for more than 10 minutes at a time, plus it just takes longer to read Middle English than the modern version when you’re not used to it.
It may therefore take me another month to finish it.

09 May 2008

Reading report for April 2008

Can someone please explain to me how I managed to lose a book the size of 2 bricks? I’m sure I’m not that disorganised, but I managed to lose it anyway. The book in question is my copy of the collected works of Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales being my classic of the month. I only found it (under my bed, if you must know) on Wednesday the 23 of April. “Fine” I thought, “I’ll have the holiday (April 24 was the Icelandic 1st day of summer and a bank holiday) and the weekend to read it”, but it was not to be: my parents arrived and on Thursday we visited relatives and the weekend was spent on quality time with my mother, something I wouldn’t have missed for any book, however important. Therefore, I will be reading 2 classics in May: The Canterbury Tales and a Saga I have yet to choose (probably one of the shorter ones).

April was a busy reading month for me, even if I didn’t get round to more than the prologue and first three Canterbury tales. I read 15 books, 3 of which were rereads:

Georgette Heyer’s The Corinthian and Terry Pratchett’s Men at Arms & Feet of Clay.

Last month I finally started reading Nora Roberts. I don’t know what took me so long to get going with her books – that is, the books published under that name. I discovered her J.D. Robb books several years ago and have been reading them in order of publication, taking care to do it slowly enough that I will not catch up with the series for a number of years. If the books in the In Death series continue to be as entertaining as they have been so far, I think I would be miserable if I didn’t have at least one of them to look forward to. But back to Nora – I accidentally bought the second book in one of her trilogies at the flea market and when I discovered it, I went to the library and checked out the other 2, plus another 2 trilogies and a book of her novellas, thinking I should have some choices. I ended up reading 2 trilogies, and am in the middle of the third. Roberts is an expert spinner of tales, and while they all focus on romance, her books are also full of strong characters, complicated non-romance relationships and adventure, and the ones I read also have supernatural elements.

Due to this Nora Roberts spree and the 3 other romances I read, I read more romances in April than I think I have ever done in one month before. This is possibly due to it being spring, or possibly because I find that the prospect of a happy ending is very nice indeed when my mood barometer is on the down-swing. Depression, even the mild sort, is a nasty thing to have and sometimes I need all the help I can get to make the mood barometer swing the other way.

I also managed to squeeze in one challenge author, and will review her once I have read the second book by her that I have lined up.

The rest of the books:
David Niven: Bring on the Empty Horses
Michael Palin: The New Europe (coincidentally, just as I finished the book, they started showing the TV series on national television)
Susan Elizabeth Phillips: This Heart of Mine & Heaven, Texas (coincidentally, one of these deals with depression)
J.D. Robb: Judgment in Death
Nora Roberts: The In the Garden trilogy: Blue Dahlia, Black Rose & Red Lily and the Keys trilogy: Key of Light, Key of Knowledge & Key of Valor
Margaret Truman: Murder at the Library of Congress

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I also watched one literary adaptation: Perfume, based on the novel by Patrick Süskind. It was a beautifully filmed but somewhat simplified version of the story told in the book. While I understand the film-maker’s desire to have a sympathetic protagonist in the film (which Grenouille is most assuredly not in the book) to boost its saleability, I still think the actor playing Grenouille, while skilful at his art, was too good looking. Having Grenouille understand the wrongness of his actions was, in my opinion, an unnecessary addition to the story, because the point of it, if any, was to create a totally unsympathetic character, which could only be done without allowing him to have even the slightest bit of regret for his actions. Some of the other actors were miscast as well, especially Dustin Hoffman who was far from convincing in the role of the Italian has-been perfumer. I also understand the necessity of fleshing out the story to plainly show things that were only hinted at in the story, but I don’t recall there having been even the slightest hint of detective story in the novel. I did enjoy how sight and sound were used to interpret what Grenouille was smelling, surely the most clever attempt to use synesthesia I have seen on the screen. Apart from the choice of actors and the simplification of the story, I felt that there was something else missing. For lack of a better word I will call it “soul” – that indescribable depth and sparkle that can make the difference between a movie being a mere passing fancy to it becoming a classic.