27 February 2009

Survival stories

I came across an interesting article at BraveNewTraveler: 8 Incredible Survival Stories. While I have only read one of the books (Endurance) and seen a documentary and the movie based on Alive, I am familiar with some of the other stories and think they are pretty amazing examples of survival. I already have Yossi Ghinsberg's book on my wishlist, and the movie based on Touching the Void is on my "To Watch" list. Now I want to check out the rest.

Be sure to also check out 8 of the Greatest Non-Fiction Adventure Stories Ever Told and 8 of the Greatest Fictional Adventure Stories Ever Told for some more great recommendations.

Review: On a Shoestring to Coorg (travel) by Dervla Murphy

Year published: 1976
Genre: Travelogue
Setting & time: India, 1973-4

This is the third of Dervla Murphy’s travelogues that I have read, and I think by now I could call myself a fan of hers. Her books project an image of a woman of strength, honesty, determination and individuality, and also one of bloody-mindedness and strong opinions that you sometimes don’t agree with, yet you can’t help admiring her for her strength of conviction. She isn’t afraid of matter-of-factly writing about things that might reflect badly on her, like getting drunk or angry or doing something embarrassing, but neither does she hesitate to tell the reader when she is overcome with admiration of something - often a beautiful sunset or a lovely nature spot. As a result, she comes across as more human than many travel writers who either turn everything that happens to them into a series of jokes, or seem not to be touched by anything that happens around them.

This book is Murphy’s slightly starry-eyed account of a four month journey down the west coast of India, accompanied by her five-year-old daughter, Rachel, who would also later accompany her on the journey recounted in Eight Feet in the Andes, which I have already reviewed here. Murphy, who had hated India on a previous visit there, returned home a confirmed indophile, which I can relate to.

Another thing I liked about this book was reading about how one can enjoy a long journey like this burdened with only minimal luggage. Being a master of the art of minimalist travel, Murphy brought one small rucksack for herself and a small bag for Rachel and yet never seems to have missed or lacked for anything. I’ve done this kind of minimalist travelling myself and it feels very liberating, but I suspect that I had as much luggage as the two of them put together.

I have not been to the part of India where most of their time was spent, so I felt as if I were travelling with them and discovering the area at the same time as they were, so vivid are Murphy’s descriptions of the people and places they encountered.

Rating: A good, solid travelogue that should especially interest indophiles and those considering travel in India. 3+ stars.

25 February 2009

Wednesday reading experience #8

Read a book about a place you have visited, the area or city you live in, or a place you are visiting.

Being familiar with the place you are reading about can heighten the experience of the reading and make you look at a familiar place in a new way.

Reading about an area you are visiting can change your experience, for example by introducing you to new places, like sights, neighbourhoods, streets, museums, shops, pubs or markets that you would otherwise never have visited.

Have you made any interesting discoveries about a place through reading a book set there?

23 February 2009

Mystery review: A Murder on the Appian Way by Steven Saylor

Genre: Historical mystery
Year of publication: 1996
No. in series: 5
Series detective: Gordianus the Finder
Type of investigator: Private detective
Setting & time: Rome, 52 B.C.

A rabble-rousing Roman politician is killed on the Via Appia highway, a day's journey from Rome, causing widespread rioting in the city. The dead man’s wife sends for Gordianus the Finder to hire him to discover what happened, but eventually he sets out along the Via Appia at the behest of another client. With a lot of digging and patient questioning he finds out what happened, but meanwhile trouble is brewing in his own household…

This is an interesting 1st century B.C. detective story and political thriller that reads in parts like a modern police procedural. Saylor’s writing is rich in detail and historical information, the plotting is layered and the narrative gripping, and the characters come alive on the page. Saylor is very good at drawing up an image of what Rome and the surrounding countryside could have been like in those times, and is able, without being overly wordy, to conjure up images of cityscape and landscapes that are almost cinematic.

While the story deals with deadly serious events, there is still place for humour, which Saylor has applied with a light and subtle hand.

Several famous historical characters take part in the story, among them Cicero, Pompey, Marc Anthony and Julius Caesar. All of them come across as plausible and their behaviour does not feel out of character, as sometimes happens when real characters are included in fictional narratives.

The story is all the more remarkable in that it is based on real events. The fictional Gordianus is inserted into the story as the investigator, and some twists are provided that make it more than just a novelisation of the events, but the historical basis is there and has made me interested in finding out more about Roman history.

I will definitely be reading more of this series.

Rating: Not just a good mystery, but also an interesting history lesson. 3+ stars.

21 February 2009

BookMooch explosion

At the beginning of the year I changed my status on BookMooch from “ask me first” to “worldwide”. For the uninitiated this means that a step was eliminated from the process of mooching a book from me. Before, the person interested in the book would have to e-mail me and ask if I was willing to send the book to their country, and only after I had said “yes” could they mooch it. I did this because I was offering some books that were so heavy that even for 3 mooch points they were still not cost effective to send outside Europe. I always got a few mooches every month, but I also got a number of “will you send to my country” requests that came to nothing but took the book off the inventory list for a week, because if done right, asking automatically reserves the book for the asker. I think the number of “can I mooch” e-mails that never resulted in mooches was so high because many people don’t realise that the book is reserved for them when they use the “ask me” button. Once a book has been reserved, it disappears from the owner’s inventory and can only be found by
a) linking to it before asking,
b) searching for it, or
c) clicking on the link to it in the request e-mail.
Many people don’t seem to realise this and when they are unable to find the book again they think it must have been mooched while they waited for an answer from the owner.

I had grown tired of this, so I decided to go global and allow everyone to mooch directly from me, but first I removed all the heavy books from my inventory and donated them to a library. I had never had any complaints about the amount of books that were being mooched from me – there were always many enough to keep me supplied with points – but now there has been an explosion. If things continue as they have in January and February, my moochables shelf will be bare by the end of October, because it’s emptying a lot faster than I am adding books to it. In January alone, more books were mooched from me than in the previous six months. Obviously the “ask me first” status deters many people from mooching.

The mooch points I am accruing are something of a problem. I can easily find books to mooch for them all, but I don’t want to mooch too many books over a short period of time or the Icelandic customs authorities will think I’m opening a second-hand bookshop. If they do, I’ll be required to pay import tax (10%), VAT (24,5%) and a handling fee (450 kr.) for every book packet I receive, meaning I could just as well buy them from a second hand bookshop.

20 February 2009

Crime reading for neophytes

Thanks to Maxine at Petrona, I discovereed Uriah Robinson’s “Snowed in on Dartmoor” challenge: to list 12 books you would recommend to a reader who has never read any crime books.

While I have read hundreds – perhaps over a thousand – crime books, my reading has been somewhat limited in that I don’t particularly like a certain sub-sub-genre of the hardboiled sub-genre and have read very few caper books, but I still managed to find books to recommend from all 12 sub-genres he mentions.

1] The Origins:

Wilkie Collins: The Moonstone. One of the earliest mystery novels and a very enjoyable read.

2] The Age of Sherlock Holmes :
G.K. Chesterton: The Innocence of Father Brown. I considered R. Austin Freeman and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but in the end I decided on Chesterton, because I love the Father Brown stories.

3] The Golden Age:
Agatha Christie: And Then There Were None. There are a number of writers I could have recommended here, such as Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey or Ngaio Marsh.

4] Hardboiled:
Dashiell Hammett: The Maltese Falcon. My most recent hard-boiled read and one that I like very much.

5] The Police Procedural:
Hillary Waugh: Last seen wearing. It was either this, Ed McBain’s Cop Hater, or J.J. Marric's Gideon's Day, but I liked this one best.

6] Detectives [police, forensic and private]:
Sue Grafton: A is for Alibi. A very good introduction to the private eye genre.

7] Psychological suspense:
Thomas Harris: Red Dragon. There were several I could have recommended here, but I think this one is a good introduction to the genre.

8] Caper and comic crime fiction:
Carl Hiassen: Stormy Weather. Hiassen never fails to make me laugh. Had I chosen a caper story, it would have been Michael Crichton's The Great Train Robbery.

9] Historical crime fiction:
Ellis Peters: A Morbid Taste for Bones. An excellent histrical, but I did have a hard time here. I could have recommended Anne Perry, Elizabeth Peters, Lindsay Davis, Steven Saylor, Paul Doherty, or a number of others, but in my mind Ellis Peters is the queen of the historical detective story.

10] Thrillers:
Desmond Bagley: Running Blind. One of the earliest thrillers I ever read – and it takes place in Iceland.

11] Crime fiction in translation:
Arnaldur Indriðason: Silence of the Grave. He's Icelandic. So am I.

12] The Wild Card category:
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: The Hound of the Baskervilles. I felt Doyle rated a mention.

To this I would like to add:

13] Fantasy/sci-fi crime fiction:
Terry Pratchett: Feet of Clay. Quite a good police procedural, with the addition of a werewolf, dwarves, and golems.

14] Spy and espionage fiction:
Ken Follett: The Key to Rebecca. Based on a true story, this is one of the best spy thrillers I have read. Could also have gone in the thriller or historical categories.

19 February 2009

Top mysteries challenge review: Last Seen Wearing by Hillary Waugh

Year of publication: 1952
Genre: Mystery, police procedural
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Massachusetts, USA; March-April 1950

18 year-old Marilyn Lowell Mitchell disappears without trace from her college dormitory and goes missing for 2 weeks before she is found dead. It is only because of some clever comparative forensic work by the town's police chief that her death is ruled a murder and not a suicide. It is then up to the police to dig for clues as to the who and why of her death.

This is a pure police procedural and a very realistic one. The entire investigation is based on solid and diligent searching for clues and evidence and the elimination of suspects. It has the requisite false leads and dead ends, but no real red herrings, because those false leads are quickly revealed as such, instead of dominating the plot for several chapters like they might in a less realistic story.
But this is far from being a mere dry recounting of an investigation, because Waugh knew how to create interesting characters. It is especially Chief Ford and Detective Cameron that come alive, but every character comes across as realistic without too much description. It is in the combination of these factors with humour, pathos and a matter-of-fact storytelling that makes this a great story.

Rating: An excellent and near-perfect police procedural. 4+ stars.

Books left in challenge: 114

For those who have read the book or those who haven't and don't mind spoilers, Wikipedia has a good summary of the plot.

18 February 2009

Useful website of the week: Fantastic Fiction

Last week I discussed Stop, you’re killing me!, a useful website for readers of crime fiction. This time around the useful website is for all kinds of fiction, and if an author has also written non-fiction, that is included as well. The site has bibliographies for over 20 thousand authors with works in English.

Fantastic Fiction offers searches by author and book title, and if you go to the Preferences page, you can also search by short story title and ISBN. As with Stop, you’re killing me!, this website is only for books published in English, and doesn’t seem to include information on untranslated works (conclusion is based on a sample of Icelandic authors with both translated and untranslated books).

Putting in an author’s full name will take you directly to that author’s page, while searches by first or last name will bring up all authors in the database who share the name. A title search will bring up all the books that share the title word, or if the title is unique it will take you to a page with different editions of the same book.

Each author page contains a short bio, information about that author’s latest and upcoming books, and books classed by series, along with other information, such as prices from different online shops.

This is a commercial site, so you will see some (unintrusive) banner ads, but they mostly seem to derive their income from linking to online bookstores and collecting incentives from them.

Other features include:
An awards page with listings of the winners of numerous awards (hasn’t been updated for 2008)
A New Books page
A Coming Soon page
Most popular listings (seems to be a listing of most searched-for titles on the site)
Top authors (seems to be a listing of most searched-for authors on the site)
Listings of authors who were born or died, by year
A preference page, so you can see, for example, the most popular titles or authors depending on what country you’re in

Wednesday reading experience #7

Read a cookbook from cover to cover.

Did it make you hungry, and would you cook something from it?

15 February 2009

Mystery review: Seeking Whom he May Devour by Fred Vargas

Original French title: L’homme à l’envers
Genre: Mystery
Year of publication: 1999
No. in series: 2
Series detective: Commissaire Adamsberg
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Rural France, contemporary

Camille, an old girlfriend of Commissaire Adamsberg’s, is living in the French Alps with a Canadian who is there to observe and make a documentary about the European wolf. In the area, dozens of sheep have been killed by what appears to be a rogue wolf, but when a woman in the neighbourhood is found dead with her throat torn out by the same creature, rumours about a werewolf start circulating.

Camille had been fond of the dead woman and joins her foster-son and her shepherd in a search for the killer, whom they believe to be a man from the neighbourhood who has trained a big dog or a wolf to kill on command. A map found in his house shows a route through rural France he has apparently planned to take, and this they follow, finding the killer always a step ahead of them and the body count, of both sheep and humans, rising.

Then Camille decides to call on Adamsberg for help. He has a good reason to stay away from Paris for a while and joins the trio in their hunt for the killer, conducting first an informal and then an official investigation into the murders.

In the previous Vargas book I reviewed (Have mercy on us all), historical facts about the Plague were woven into a story about a modern Plague scare. In this book, the inspiration is clearly the Beast of Gévaudan, which also inspired the movie Brotherhood of the Wolf. There is not so much history interwoven into this story as in Have mercy on us all, but a little knowledge about the Beast and its history and about wolves and werewolves is helpful.

The characters are well-drawn and interesting and there are some nice twists and turns and a couple of clever red herrings. The reader is on an even footing with Adamsberg and company, and may even have figured things out before Adamsberg apparently has.

It isn’t until Camille decides they need help and calls Adamsberg that the action really takes off. Until then the story unfolds at a leisurely pace that gives the reader time to get to know Camille and her companions and to form some opinions, that may or may not be confirmed when Adamsberg begins his detecting.

The landscape and small villages and hamlets of the French Alps provide a backdrop for the story that has made me want to visit the region.

Rating: A tasty road trip tale of death and mayhem, love and friendship. 3+ stars.

Awards: Prix Mystère de la critique; shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger.

13 February 2009

Cool design

I follow the BoingBoing blog and yesterday it drew my attention to this piece of book-related furniture. It isn't real books, but carton paper printed to look like stacked books. It's sold to be used as a stool or a table. It reminds me of a sculpture made of books that's in the Reykjavík city library.

Others have given this idea a different spin by specially designing furniture, for example tables and chairs, to double as bookcases.

What I would like to do is to turn an existing piece of furniture into a bookcase, while still retaining the original function. If you have come across an example of this, please post a link in the comment section.

11 February 2009

Mystery review: Have Mercy on Us All by Fred Vargas

Fred Vargas’ books are only just beginning to be published in Icelandic. I read this one first as it is the first one published, but it turns out that the second book to be published in Icelandic (English title Seeking Whom He May Devour) is an earlier book in the Adamsberg series. I hope it doesn’t matter much.

I actually read the Icelandic translation, Kallarinn, but I’m giving the English title so my English-speaking readers know which book I am talking about.

Original French title: Pars vite et reviens tard
Genre: Murder mystery
Year of publication: 2001
No. in series: 4
Series detective: Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Paris (mostly, France), contemporary

A man who has revived the ancient profession of town crier has been getting messages that are copied passages from old books about the Plague. At the same time the police are baffled by a mysterious symbol that appears on doors across Paris and turns out to be a protective sign against the Plague. Soon, people who lived in the buildings with the marked doors but whose doors were not marked, start dying. It is really the Plague, or are Adamsberg and company dealing with a very clever killer with a specific motive?

This is an excellent book on several levels, not just as a mystery but as a novel. The quality of the writing is excellent, the characters and their interpersonal relationships are realistic, and the mystery is layered and complicated. Additionally, there is some interesting information about the Plague woven into the narrative, and you know that Vargas isn’t making these things up, because she is an expert on the Plague. The story is told from several points of view, mostly that of Joss Le Guerns, the town crier who receives and reads the Plague messages, and that of the police, mostly Adamsberg but also his sidekick, Danglard. This makes it possible for the reader to compete with the detective, something I always appreciate in a mystery.

The tension builds slowly – you get a sense of creeping menace at the beginning which near the end has become pulse-quickening excitement. And this is no cosy. There are heart-wrenching descriptions of brutality and people doing twisted things to each other. There is staggering unfairness, hatred, envy and lust, but also love and tenderness. All of this comes together to make one hell of a story.

Rating: An excellent read: thrilling, complicated and brutal. 5 stars.

Awards: Prix des libraires

Wednesday reading experience #6

Read Alfred Lansing’s Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage during a snowstorm.

Heightened the experience, didn’t it?

10 February 2009

Recycled books

If you hate throwing away books, even old computer manuals and outdated textbooks, here is an idea for recycling them: make them into vases or furniture. All you need is a band saw and some imagination.

Top mysteries challenge review: The Poisoned Chocolate Case by Anthony Berkeley

Edited - I have added something to the review that might be of interest.

Year of publication: 1936
Genre: Mystery
Type of mystery: Murder, whodunnit
Type of investigator: Group of amateurs
Setting & time:
No. in series: 4

Amateur sleuth Roger Sheringham has formed the Crime Circle, a club of 6 clever people with an interest in theoretical criminology. A police inspector from Scotland Yard has decided to hand them a real unsolved case and see if they succeed where the police have failed. They have a week to prepare, and at the end of it each must put his or her case to the others, who will have a chance to accept or disprove the theory.

The case concerns a middle-aged rogue who, upon receiving in the mail a gift box of chocolates, gives it to another man. That man has lost a bet with his wife and gives her the chocolates to settle it, eats some himself and proceeds to fall violently ill. The wife eats even more chocolates and dies of nitrobenzene poisoning.

Who was the intended victim, and who did the dastardly deed? Was it the original recipient, or was it perhaps the other man or his wife, or someone else altogether? Each club member has a different idea, and so do the police.

Warning: here be SPOILERS

This is not only a murder mystery, but also an exercise in detection and a showcasing of different motives, types of twists and red herrings, detection methods and mistakes sleuths can make. As such, it should be read by all aspiring mystery writers, who will be able to learn much from it, not the least how to convince their readers that their sleuth’s solution is the only possible one. This is one of those stories where, while each sleuth discovers something new about the case in their search for the truth, all the facts necessary in order to solve the mystery are really set out right at the beginning, allowing the reader to compete with the sleuths as they draw their various conclusions, several of which would have made a quite credible final solution.

The characters are an interesting collection of people: a pompous, theatrical trial lawyer, two mystery writers, one cynical, the other arrogant, a cool and detached writer of literary fiction, a bumbling but very intelligent playwright, and a modest and mild little man of no particular appearance who had been even more surprised at being admitted to this company of personages than they had been at finding him amongst them, to use Berkeley’s words. Each character is well drawn, and each has his or her own method of arriving at a solution.

The only member of the club with practical crime-solving experience is Roger Sheringham, a somewhat unlikeable man whom Berkeley treats with a kind of loving disrespect. Sheringham is the only one of the sleuths we get to follow around while he is doing his detecting, which has the purpose of underlining that he is the series sleuth, and to show the reader some of the mistakes that can be made when cluegathering.

There is a thread of humour that runs through the whole narrative from beginning to end, sometimes gently mocking both reader and characters by drawing out the ridiculous in a situation, and at other times satirising the mystery genre. Without the humour this would have been a rather dull story, in spite of all the juicy detecting.

The last of the possible solutions will be a surprise to many, but I disagree with the reviewer who said it was the least likely suspect who did the deed – I think this person was supposed to be the obvious murderer right from the start, so obvious that few readers would even notice right away. I don’t think I will say any more on the subject, as I want other readers to discover this humorous and delightful twist for themselves and draw their own conclusions as to whether it is the correct one.

Edit: For those who are interested in this kind of exercise, there is a similar exercise in Ellery Queen's The Siamese Twin Mystery, where, before coming up with the right solution, the Queens propose several different solutions to a murder mystery, only to either immediately prove it couldn't have been so or to have other characters reveal evidence that proves them wrong.

Rating: A classic mystery that should satisfy anyone who has ever disagreed with an author about the most obvious solution to the crime. 5 stars.

Books left in challenge: 116

09 February 2009

Useful Website of the Week: Stop, you’re killing me!

I keep a close eye on the traffic that comes to this blog, and especially which search engine keywords bring people here. Quite often people are looking for an author whose book or books I have reviewed. Another common search is for e-books and a third is for the series, reading or publication order of an author’s books. It occurred to me that perhaps I would be doing these people a favour by redirecting them to the right website, so I decided to start a new feature. I’m calling it Useful Website of the Week. Despite the name, it’s not going to be a regular weekly occurrence – the name merely indicates that I will not be doing more than one such post a week.

The plan is to review one or more useful website(s) each time, sticking to ones that are useful to readers, e.g. sites that distribute free e-books, detailed author sites, author and reader blogs that I enjoy, and sites that list useful information about an author’s books, such as series and reading order.

The first Useful Website of the Week is Stop, you’re killing me!
The site was started in 1998 by Bonny Brown, who is an avid mystery fan. Like so many other readers she likes to read series in order of publication to be able to follow the development of the characters and writing. She was frustrated by how difficult it could be to find out about publication order and even what books an author had written, so she started scouring various websites and reference books and put together the website for herself and other readers who felt the same way. In 2006 Lucinda Surber and Stan Ulrich took over the maintenance of the website, and have continued adding to it and making it even better. In 2008 it won the Anthony Award for Best Mystery Website/Blog, so I am clearly not the only one who recognises its excellence.

The website covers mystery, crime, thriller, spy, and suspense books. If an author has written books that belong to other genres, you will not find them there, so if you want to find a listing of an author’s complete works, you will have to look elsewhere (I’ll post a useful site for this next week).

I have been using the site since at least 2004, and have found it very useful. Occasionally I do come across a mystery author who is not featured there, but it’s rare. In those cases I have another website to fall back on, one that I will discuss next week.

Stop, you’re killing me! doesn’t just feature authors of crime fiction and their books by series and publication order, but also a number of other useful features. One is the ability to search by series character – so for example if you want to find books about Sister Mary Helen but can’t quite remember the author’s name, you just have to look up that character and you will be taken to the author’s page.

Other features include:
  • Listings of newly published books
  • Award listings – you can, for example, find the CWA Dagger awards going back to 1955
  • Books by location, historical era and genre
  • Sleuths/detectives by occupation and ethnicity
  • Recommendations based on which authors or what kind of crime story you like
  • Short reviews of the crime books the webmasters have been reading

The site is only about books published in English, both original English-language books and translated ones, but in some instances when a non-English language author has had some works translated and not others, you can find information about the untranslated works as well.

Mystery review: Tími Nornarinnar (Season of the Witch) by Árni Þórarinsson (Arni Thorarinsson)

This is one of the Icelandic challenge books. It has been translated already into German, French and Danish, and I read somewhere that it is being translated into English, which is why I am reviewing it here. What the English title will be remains to be seen, but the Icelandic title translates as Season of the Witch, taking its name from the song by Donovan, which has a bearing on the plot.

Genre: Mystery
Year of publication: 2005
No. in series: 4
Series detective: Einar the journalist (I didn't see a last name - perhaps it's revealed in the earlier books)
Type of investigator: Investigative reporter
Setting & time: Northern Iceland, mostly Akureyri, contemporary.

A woman falls overboard during a rafting trip in Skagafjörður, hits her head on a rock and later dies without having gained consciousness. Her mother contacts Einar and tells him she was murdered. Einar finds this hard to believe but starts investigating anyway, more as as sop to the old lady, whom he likes, than on suspicion of finding anything suspicious. Shortly afterwards a charismatic young man disappears and Einar gets orders to write up a story about the investigation, while also covering a problem with politics and hooliganism in a village a few hour’s drive from Akureyri. His investigation leads to interesting facts about the young man, who was not all he seemed to be, and also about the dead woman’s husband. At the same time Einar finds himself embroiled in two separate family dramas with quite different outcomes.

Review: This was my first book by this author, but will not be the last. The story is told in the first person by Einar the journalist, a recovering alcoholic, warm-hearted man and hard-nosed journalist with strong ethics and an ironic sense of humour. The twists were by turns unexpected and predictable, with enough surprises and interesting events to keep me happily reading the book in one session. There is humour, tragedy, love and hatred, and in short, it’s a very satisfying read.

It was fun seeing all the different characters and for once knowing that they are, if not exactly based on, then at least meant to remind one of real people, and the same goes for places. I have lived in two of the three places where the story unfolds (the third is fictional) and know them intimately, and in fact I used to sell and participate in rafting trips like the one in which the woman dies and go to the same school as the missing boy, so that made the story very real for me.

Rating: A thrilling and funny murder mystery. Do read it when and if it comes out in English. 5 stars.

This the second Icelandic book in the Icelandic reading challenge.

07 February 2009

Top mysteries challenge review: The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

This is the second Hammett novel I read for the top mysteries challenge, which leaves two.

Besides reading the book I watched the movie, which is the most faithful book to film adaptation I have seen.

Year of publication: 1930
Genre: Hardboiled detective story
Type of mystery: Theft, murder
Type of investigator: Private detective
Setting & time: San Francisco, USA, contemporary to writing

A woman approaches private detective Sam Spade and his partner, Archer, with an apparently simple request: to tail someone. But Archer is killed on the job and Spade is approached by two more people and asked to find a valuable statuette, the Maltese Falcon. The woman turns out to be after the same thing. What follows is a merry-go-round of ruthless lies, intrigue and murder.

Discussion and review:
Sam Spade is one of the most famous detectives in the history of detective fiction, because he was a perfect prototype of the tough guy detective who used brawn as much as brain to solve his cases, took no shit from anyone and lived by a threadbare code of honour that didn’t stop him from lying and double-crossing to get what he was after. His predecessors, such as Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey and Hercule Poirot, had been gentlemen who played fair and used their minds. While Spade was not the first tough guy detective, he was the one in which everything came together to make a really memorable character. Of course, his portrayal by Humphrey Bogart in the 1941 film adaptation helped to anchor his fame as well, even though Bogart actually portrayed him as rather more sensitive and likeable than Hammett meant him to be. In the book, he is described in terms of being devilish, not just in appearance but in demeanor as well, and while you can't help rooting for him, it's more because he's the most honest of the characters rather than being in any way endearing.

If Spade is a prototype, then Bridget O'Shaughnessy is an archetype – a perfect femme fatale: beautiful, sexy, self-assured, charming and utterly ruthless. The rest of the main characters are all realistic and clearly drawn.

The narrative is spare and streamlined and quick-paced. The dialogue is realistic, and the story is character driven but still full of action. The falcon statuette is a perfect MacGuffin and one gets the feeling that the story is not so much a story as a chapter in the statuette’s long history, and that it will go on causing death and mayhem for a long time to come.

Rating: A perfectly balanced hard-boiled detective story with memorable characters and great twists. 5 stars.

Books left in challenge: 114

04 February 2009

Wednesday reading experience #5

Read a whole series in the order of publication (or the recommended reading order), without reading other books in between. It’s up to you whether you choose a trilogy or something longer.

I did this with the Anne of Green Gables books – unfortunately I read them in chronological order rather than order of publication, and found a nasty spoiler in the one book that was published out of chronology. I have also done this with sub-series from the Discworld series.

The Harry Potter books might be a not too strenuous series to read like this.

What series would you choose, and why?
What series did you choose and what was the outcome?

03 February 2009

Review: King Solomon’s Carpet by Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell)

Genre: Thriller, psychological
Year of publication: 1991
Setting & time: London, contemporary

A group of society’s outsiders rent cheap rooms in an old, mouldering school building. The owner is obsessed with underground railways and is writing a complete history of the London tube. His cousin and her children lead a fairly care-free existence, a young musician falls hard for a young woman who has left her family in order to pursue her dream to become a solo violinist, and another young man worries over his pet hawk, which seems to be dying. When a mysterious stranger arrives in their midst, he sets in motion a chain of events that will change all their lives in one way or another.

This is one of the best psychological thrillers I have read in a long while. The story moves slowly, occasionally making sudden spurts of action, but even the action is described slowly, almost languidly, so that the tension is magnified with each sentence one moves closer to each narrative climax. The characters weave in and out of each other's lives, each interaction possibly meaningless, possibly not, but often loaded with a sense of foreboding or even menace. The characters come alive on the page, but each is described with indifference by the author, so that the reader can never be certain which characters matter, which ones are merely decorative, and which ones are expendable. The story moves with a sort of inevitability, much like an out-of-control subway train destined for a collision, which is apt because the London tube is very much a character in the book, a magic carpet that takes the characters where they want to go, indifferent as to their fates or whether they ever get to where they are going.
This can't really be called a mystery in the sense that the key events have become foreseeable long before they happen, but the nature of the narrative is such that you are never quite certain that what you have predicted will happen, or if some diabolical twist is waiting just around the corner, which is of course one of the things that make this such a good thriller.

Rating: A very good slow-moving psychological thriller. 4+ stars.

CWA Gold Dagger, 1991.

This is the second book I finished in the Mystery reader Café challenge: the "on the shelf for at least a year" one.

02 February 2009

Mystery review: Harðskafi by Arnaldur Indriðason

The English title of this book will be Hypothermia. According to Amazon UK it will be published in Britain in September.

The Icelandic title is the name of a mountain in the area where Erlendur is supposed to have grown up, meaning something like “a bare and sharp-edged mountain”. It has a bearing on events from Erlendur’s past that have been mentioned in previous books. Interestingly (at least from a linguistic viewpoint) another meaning of harðskafi is close to the meaning of the English word hardscrabble, and I am sure it is no coincidence that the two words sound similar.

Genre: Mystery, police procedural
Year of publication: 2007
No. in series: 8
Series detective: Detective Erlendur Sveinsson
Setting & time: Reykjavík and Þingvellir, Iceland; contemporary

A woman discovers her friend’s body hanging from a beam in a summer house by lake Þingvallavatn. She seems to have killed herself, but the friend is convinced she would never have done that. This is enough for Erlendur, who has little to do at work, to begin an informal investigation under the pretense of a research project on the causes of suicide. At the same time he is preoccupied by two old missing persons cases: that of a young man in his last year of sixth form college, and a slightly older female university student, both of whom disappeared around the same time, 30 years earlier. Meanwhile, his private life is complicated by his daughter’s insistence that he meet with his ex-wife and make peace with her, and his colleagues (who are otherwise not involved in the story) think his preoccupation with what they see as three suicides, is morbid and unprofessional.

As in some of the previous books, this story takes place in winter, and the atmosphere is correspondingly gloomy. Erlendur himself, on the other hand, is a bit less glum than usual, and I would describe his mood in the story as pensive rather than depressed. While the season is not as important a presence as in Voices and Arctic Chill (where it is like one of the characters), there is nevertheless a definite feeling of coldness that underlines Erlendur’s memories of an event in his youth that changed his whole life (I’m not saying anything more, in case this is read by someone who has not read any of the books before) and explains why he is so interested in the missing persons.

As in some of the previous books, we get to see the past in flashbacks, in this instance events in the dead woman’s life leading up to her death, seen from her point of view, but she never becomes as engaging a character as some of the others have. She is pitiful and a victim by nature, but I still found her hard to sympathise with.

The story at first seems to move very slowly as Erlendur painstakingly goes over details and questions people, but the slowness is deceptive. Every chapter holds one or more pieces of the puzzles and nothing is held back from the reader, who is given a level playing field against Erlendur, with full access to his discoveries and thought processes. All the time the tension is mounting, almost unnoticed, until before you know it the story is racing ahead at speed.

As with some of the other Erlendur stories, there is no such thing here as perfect justice, and the ending may be disappointing to some, in more than one way.

Rating: Another excellent mystery one from Iceland’s King of Crime. 4+ stars.

This is the third book I finish in the Mystery reader Café challenge: the story taking place in my area.

01 February 2009

Reading report for January 2009

January was a bigger than average reading month for me: 21 books finished. This is no surprise as I had a week off from work in which I finished a total of 6 books. I expect I will be back to my average of 12,75 BPM in February.

In the reading challenges the situation is as follows:
  • I finished 3 out of the 4 Mystery Reader Café challenge books, and only have the book with the word „murder“ in the title left. I plan to try to finish that in February.
  • In the 52 Icelandic books challenge I read 5 books, which puts me a little ahead of plan.
  • In the Top Mysteries challenge I finished 4 books. That challenge is not on a deadline, but I would like to finish at least 25% of the books on the list by the end of the year.
  • The challenge I am proudest of is the TBR one. In addition to the Mystery Reader Café „on the shelf for a year book“, I managed to read 10 other TBR books that had been on the shelf for a year or more. I decided to keep 5 and put the other 6 in my BookMooch inventory. The only books I have bought this month were ones I have been specifically looking for, which is quite a change, as I usually buy about 75% of my books on speculation.

The books:
Arnaldur Indriðason: Harðskafi (murder mystery)
Árni Þórarinsson: Tími Nornarinnar (murder mystery)
Anthony Berkeley: The Poisoned Chocolate Case (murder mystery)
Suzanne Brockmann: The Admiral's Bride (romantic thriller)
Jennifer Crusie: The Cinderella Deal (romance)
Joseph Delaney: The Spook's Apprentice (YA fantasy)
Karen Joy Fowler: The Jane Austen Book Club (novel)
Hallgrímur Helgason: 10 ráð til að hætta að drepa fólk og byrja að vaska upp (thriller)
Dashiell Hammett: The Thin Man (murder mystery)
Michael Innes: The Journeying Boy (mystery)
Ed McBain: Cop Hater (police procedural)
Harry Pearson: A Tall Man in a Low Land (travelogue, Belgium)
Rakel Pálsdóttir: Kötturinn í örbylgjuofninum (urban myths collection)
J.D. Robb: Reunion in Death (police procedural)
C.F. Roe: A Nasty Bit of Murder (murder mystery)
Dorothy L. Sayers: The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (murder mystery)
Daphne Sheldrick: The Orphans of Tsavo (memoir, animals, Africa)
Sigurður A. Magnússon: Grískir reisudagar (travelogue, Greece)
Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell): King Solomon's Carpet (psychological thriller)
Patricia Wentworth: The Gazebo (murder mystery)
Wilson, Jason & Frances Mayes, editors: The Best American Travel Writing 2002 (travel articles)