The Keeper of Lost Causes, The First Department Q Novel by Jussi Adler-Olsen, Is One of the Very Best Scandinavian Murder Mysteries

Jussi Adler-Olsen started a wonderful Danish detective series with The Keeper of Lost Causes, The First Department Q Novel. It’s not unusual for a mystery series to start with a discredited and morbidly confused detective, but Carl Morck is truly distinctive. His personal and professional baggage is overwhelming, yet he carves out his space and moves forward. Morck’s contempt for most of the people in the police department, is both hilarious and near-suicidal, but he makes it work. I’ve always been a fan of watching discredited people make the system work for themselves. The way Morck tortures the people who are trying to torture him is inspired and very funny. Less funny is the guilt Morck suffers in connection with a prior case that left his partner completely incapacitated. Along the way, there is a mysterious yet oddly engaging assistant with an apparently gruesome past, a new love interest for Carl who has no idea what to do with it and the kind of dark underlying mysteries that happily characterize so many great Scandinavian crime novels.

This is no standard example of the Scandinavian crime genre. Adler-Olsen has created something wonderfully new. I think I’ve read a total of three Department Q mysteries, but this is the first and it sets the stage brilliantly for the novels to come. Carl is the kind of protagonist who lacks all social skills, and I couldn’t help loving him. Carl’s back story and the other characters created by Adler-Olsen are truly inspired and provide ample fuel for additional books in this series, and I now absolutely have to read all of them.

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Hello Kitty Must Die by Angela Choi

Hello Kitty Must Die by Angela Choi is one of the stranger books I have read recently, and I do recommend it. Fiona Yu is a youngish, hilariously twisted Chinese American woman with a take-no-prisoners attitude toward life. A Big Law lawyer, Fiona lives with her parents and has no love life. The disconnect between her parents’ traditional expectations and her own rogue intentions is massive, and yet they all live together. The first person narration of Fiona’s frustrations and utterly amoral nature gleefully pulls the reader into a bizarre, macabre tale. It is always impressive when an author can make the reader care about what happens to a truly appalling protagonist, and Choi does it with great zest. This very fun book reminded me of Arsenic and Old Lace, without the buffer of sweet characters with good intentions. Hello Kitty Must Die happily shares the manic zaniness of Arsenic and Old Lace and craziness of the best screwball comedies from the 1930’s. Underlying all the fun and mayhem, is the story of Fiona’s frustrations with the expectations and tedium of her life. Being a single, overworked lawyer with clueless, demanding parents presents real issues, and while the average person wouldn’t resort to Fiona’s fierce tactics, it’s hard not to bond with her, one way or another.

Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn

I had forgotten how wonderful Barbara Pym is! Quartet in Autumn, oddly enough, seems to have been a comeback novel after Pym had gone unpublished for 15 years. Whatever the back story, Quartet in Autumn reveals and then weaves together the lives of four oldish co-workers as they face the uncertainties of retirement, financial difficulties and uncertain health. Marcia, Letty, Edwin and Norman at first seem as uneventful and unremarkable as their names, but Pym carefully introduces bits and pieces of their past and present lives. This is not an elderly rom-com, but it is the story of four idiosyncratic older adults who live on their own and who don’t appear to have much excitement in their lives. They know each other and their foibles through working together, and a loyalty develops among them. As it happens they are not entirely on their own. The way they help each other and try to understand each other makes for a warm, thoughtful book.

I am so glad I read it, and I highly recommend it!

The Story of Arthur Truluv — A Warm and Lovely Novel by Elizabeth Berg

Elizabeth Berg’s The Story of Arthur Truluv shows the benefits of unexpected friendships and connections.  Arthur Moses is a good man who steadfastly grieves the passing of his wife.  Arthur’s willingness to reach out to others in a sensitive way and to be open to others who reach out to him makes him one of the most lovable characters I’ve encountered in recent fiction.  Arthur isn’t a saint or conventionally heroic, but he is astute and compassionate.  He is, however exactly the right friend, for the bullied and forlorn 18 year old Maddy Harris.  Together they do good things.

The Story of Arthur Truluv reminded me a little of the charms of A Man Called Ove, but with fewer rough edges.  I can’t imagine anything better than to age like Arthur does — to befriend the friendless and help them find some happiness and peace.  It is tough to be as good as Arthur is without being smug or without being cloying, but Elizabeth Berg has deftly sketched a wonderful character and reminded me that I need to read more of her books.

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.

The Wonder Garden — A Wry Look at a Small Connecticut Town Through Loosely Connected Short Stories

I generally avoid short stories, but Lauren Acampora’s The Wonder Garden offers a compelling collection of connected stories featuring the inhabitants of a Old Cranbury, a small Connecticut town with historical pretensions.  Old Cranbury’s citizens take themselves pretty seriously, but frequently come across as silly and obtuse.  To round things out, some characters reveal odd anarchic tendencies, while other characters are just plain cruel.  For all the apparent homogeneity and small town congeniality, there is a lot going on here.  Generally The Wonder Garden is more humorous and insightful than tragic, but whatever Acampora’s take on her characters, this is an entertaining book that provides a deft take on certain mainstay characters of small town life.  

It is almost as if Acampora has gotten behind the scenes and dug up the dirt on some of the stock characters featured in Hollywood movies about small town life.   (Frank Capra would have loved this.)  Happily, The Wonder Garden also bears some similarities to EE Benson’s Lucia series (see Queen Lucia, etc.), which is set in a small English town, although The Wonder Garden offers a more twisted and sobering view of small town life, than Lucia‘s sillier madcap approach.  Since these are short stories, very little gets resolves — just like life in a small town where the same people keep interacting again and again.

So, I recommend this book.  

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!

Live from Cairo — Ian Bassingthwaighte’s Juxtaposes the Middle East’s Refugee Crisis with Egypt’s 2011 Revolution

Live from Cairo features sharply drawn youngish adults confronting the Middle East’s refugee crisis in the midst of Egypt’s revolution in 2011.  Each of Ian Bassingthwaighte’s characters tries to pursue and protect her or his own agenda in the face of utter confusion and inescapable misery.  Charlie and Aos, the legal aid workers, together with Hana, the Iraqi-American resettlement officer, combine romantic idealism and a sense of purpose with jaded exhaustion and an overarching hopelessness.   They also share some personal spark impelling them to go rogue.  Dahlia, Omran and the other refugees suffer from terrible past trauma and find themselves trapped in a bleak and inhuman refugee crisis.  Desperate as their situations are, the refugees persist in their struggle to maintain personal relationships and care for each other.  Red tape, violence and mind-numbing uncertainty are the enemies.  

Live from Cairo‘s premise is reminiscent of the film Casablanca in that an interesting assortment of desperate individuals find itself trapped in a corrupt, dangerous place rocked by trauma and violence.  The tense mix of fear and personal desire in an unforgiving environment where everything keeps changing is not quite as horrific as it sounds, because, like Casablanca, there are some deft comic aspects to the characters and the situations.  I found myself so invested in these characters that I really needed to now what would happen to them and how they would react.

I particularly admired the way in which Bassingthwaite managed to provide so much information about a significant number of characters in his brief and highly active narrative.  The reader’s situation mirrors that of the novel’s characters, who have to pick up information about each other through short bursts of information and relatively brief encounters.  Like the characters, the reader also has to decide quickly who is trustworthy.  The dialog between characters is particularly sharp and advances the narrative brilliantly.

I recommend this novel as highly informative and entertaining all at the same time.

Not Just Jane — Shelley DeWees Identifies Seven British Women Writers Who Are Probably New to You

Shelley DeWees’s Not Just JaneRediscovering Seven Amazing Women Writers Who Transformed British Literature provides a fascinating look into seven successful, yet relatively unknown, British women writers of the 18th and 19th centuries.  Born of her love of Austen and Bronte, in this book DeWees sets out to discover other women writers who were pioneers of their times.  I had never heard of any of the writers featured in this book.  Charlotte Turner Smith, Helen Maria Williams, Mary Robinson, Catherine Crowe, Sara Coleridge, Dinah Mulock Craig and Mary Elizabeth Braddon all enjoyed some success in their day.  Their stories tell us a lot about what was going on in England during their life times.  Many of them faced poverty and had few honorable options for earning a living.  They might become a governess or they might become prostitutes.  Faced with these options, one way or another these women became writers, and some of them became expert networkers as well.  Sara Coleridge’s story is a bit different.  She was well educated and didn’t suffer poverty, but her father, the famous poet Samuel Coleridge basically ignored her existence.  Under those circumstances it seems a shame that so much of her work was devoted to organizing her father’s work posthumously.

I have yet to read one of their books, but I certainly enjoyed reading about their lives and their environments. 

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.