A Murder of Magpies — A Highly Entertaining Mystery Set in London’s Publishing World

I loved Janet Flanders’ A Murder of Magpies, a clever mystery set up London’s publishing world.  Samantha (“Sam”) Clair is a marvelous protagonist.  Sam is an established, somewhat jaded middle-aged editor with few illusions about her authors.  Because she is a woman, middle-aged, competent and unflashy…..  Well you can imagine how she is frequently treated and ignored.  When a friend goes missing, Sam she proceeds with curiosity and the help of her equally accomplished and exasperating mother and a rumpled detective.   Sam’s reactions feel so very human and she looks at things just a little differently because of her own experiences and intellect.  The London setting and the politics of the publishing and fashion worlds supply additional substance to this fun mystery.  Janet Flanders is clever, funny and charming, and deftly inserts sly feminist touches.

This is the kind of mystery I particularly like.  It has great characters with unexpected depth, courage and talents.  The settings are interesting, as is the plot.  As it happens, the fact that A Murder of Magpies is a mystery  is less inportant than the characters and how they interact with each other and their environments.  This is a fun, decidedly non-noir story, and I recommend it.

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Crimes of the Father — Thomas Keneally at his Best

Thomas Keneally’s Crimes of the Father is a masterful novel about child abuse committed by Catholic priests in Australia in the 1970’s.  Abuse is the central focus of this very moving novel, which looks at the problem from the perspective of the 1990’s, when more and more people, including the clergy, were coming to terms with the details and extent of this longstanding nightmare.  The perpetual suffering of the victims and their families is heart-breaking and numbing all at the same time.  The cynical response of the Catholic Church is all too familiar — it concedes nothing unless caught dead to rights.

Several things stand out.  From the the perspective of the victims and their families, there is a tremendous amount of anger — anger at the perpetrators and anger at the Church.  And then there is the reaction of the Catholic Church.  The Church establishment engages in willful denial and an aggressive defense designed to take advantage of the victims at every turn.   Unless it gets caught in situations where denial is impossible.

Fortunately all clerics are not villains.  In fact the point of entry for this novel is the return of a middle-aged priest for a visit back home to Australia after years of exile abroad.  This priest is fully aware of the problem; he’s studied it; he’s even lectures on it.  He thinks the Church needs to change.  Although he hadn’t planned it, once back in Australia the priest gets swept up in the discovery of yet another very powerful, abusive priest.  One of the important issues studied by this novel is the cost to this priest of taking action.  It’s never good for one’s career to be the whistleblower in a powerful organization that can crush dissidents like bugs.   And it’s also hard when you know that innocent people will be hurt by the disclosure.

One of Thomas Keneally’s greatest strengths as a novelist is his ability to study character.  Why do people act as they do in the face of adversity?  Why do some people act with courage and against self interest?  These compelling, universal themes are explored with empathetic depth in Crimes of the Father, which I highly recommend.

And by the way, if you haven’t read Keneally’s Schindler’s List, you really should.  This amazing novel brilliantly zeroes in on why Oskar Schindler decides to risk his own life and save Jews.  There was nothing obvious about this altruistic decision.  In its own way, the novel Schindler’s List is more interesting than the movie.  Why people are or choose to be courageous is an eternally fascinating subject and well worth studying in these challenging times.

Smaller and Smaller Circles — a Terrific Mystery Set in the Philippines

Felisa Batacan has written a stunning murder mystery set in the Philippines.  Smaller and Smaller Circles has it all — a strong emotional plot involving serial killing, political corruption and child abuse.  The protagonists are two academic priests with a specialty in forensics.  Their relationship has a history and is warm, humorous and oddly endearing.  Together they face enormous hostility from powerful political and religious power brokers who prefer to bury the unpleasant “problem” as quickly as possible.  The victims are all poor young boys who would be forgotten, but for these two remarkable forensic priests who are determined to honor the victims by solving their murders.  They also need to find the murderer fast, before more deaths occur.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a mystery featuring forensic priests before, but Felisa Batacan is clearly on to something.  The combination of the decent, clever priests with brutal murder and the stench of political and religious corruption makes for a truly fascinating story. The interplay of relationships is a strong component — everyone seems to be linked to someone else, for better or worse.  This excellent mystery also offers the intriguing possibility of redemption.  Some of the bad guys may not stay so bad.  

The writing is strong and clear, and this books has deservedly won a number of awards in the Philippines.   Apparently Smaller and Smaller Circles  is one of the first Philippine murder mysteries, and I hope Ms Batacan makes her excellent debut novel the first in a series.  

I really recommend this book!

A Mystery Centered in Shanghai by the Skillful Qui Xiaolong

Shanghai Redemption, a Chinese mystery featuring Chen Cao, the recently demoted chief inspector of the Shanghai Police Department.  Chen, who has hitherto maintained an enviable reputation as an honest and resourceful detective, is now inexplicably in jeopardy.  Trying to figure out where he went wrong or which of his investigations proved too hot for his enemies compels Chen to navigate the treacherous waters of modern day China.  A rat’s nest of party politics, corruption and disgraced cadres proves difficult to unravel and exceedingly dangerous.  The author does a stellar job of revealing Chen’s personality, perceptions and strategies.   Seeing events from Chen’s perspective, as well as the perspective of some of his old allies, makes for a great narrative.  This novel also provides a wealth of interesting characters with all kinds of connections to Chen and his enemies.   I did find it difficult to keep track of the names of so many characters who drop in and out of the narrative in no particular order.  If I had it to do over again, I would keep a list of who the characters were and when they first appeared, because many of the names sounded very similar me.

I’m increasingly interested in mysteries from the Far East, and Shanghai Redemption is a stellar entry in the genre.  This is the first Inspector Chen novel I have read, but it’s not the first in the series.  I plan to go back in time and read some of the earlier novels, because this is a very intelligent and compelling series with a unique detective.

Maisie Dobbs in Gibraltar on the Periphery of the Spanish Civil War

Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs murder mysteries are always interesting and enjoyable.   A Dangerous Place is no exception.  Maisie, a recent widow, is working her way through a period of great personal trauma when she stops in Gibraltar on her way home to England after sojourns in Canada and India.  The setting is the sinister, troubled period of the Spanish Civil War, and Gibralter is right on the brink of it, literally.   There is a lot going on, and perspectives keep changing.   In addition to Winspear’s inspired choice of setting and an unexplained murder, she gives us Maisie Dobbs.  Dobbs is a different kind of detective — thoughtful to the extreme about the crime in question and the people around her.  In this novel, Dobbs is also compelled to give a great deal of thought to her own well being.  She is trying to center herself even as she unravels the murder she has discovered.

I really like this series because of Maisie Dobbs and the way she approaches her cases.  This particular novel is especially good because of the horrific yet fascinating political context presented by the Spanish Civil war and the inexorable  approach of fascism.

Why We Die  —  A Strong British Mystery Featuring a Tough Female Detective and a Very Noir Atmosphere 

Mick Herron’s Why We Die is a strong mystery with quite a lot happening.  It’s a shame Lauren Bacall isn’t around to play the vamp, but Jennifer Lawrence would make a powerful Zoe Bohm, a down on her luck private eye who stumbles into the highly perilous inner workings of a crime family.  Arkle, one of three brothers, is seriously the scariest thug I’ve seen.  Sociopath doesn’t begin to describe him.  The interplay among Arkle and his two seemingly less scary brothers provides unifying substance to the careening violence, where nothing seems to go quite right.   The plot is spectacular, but so too are the characters and their troubles.  It’s a page turner with depth, supported by a grungy Oxford setting.    I highly recommend this book, particularly to people who like female detectives, British mysteries and a lot of noir.