How I Miss P. D. James!

I know she led a long, rich and successful life, but how I miss P. D. James! Despite my long-standing aversion to the short story genre, I found James’ collection Sleep No More — Six Murderous Tales to be absolutely wonderful. These stories, which were published between 1973 and 2006, diverge from James’s usual sensitive, thoughtful mysteries starring Adam Dalgliesh. Unlike a full length mystery novel, these stories are written from the perspective of the actors rather than the detective. They are characterized by seemingly normal people going rogue and being astonishingly brutal about getting what they want. There is no agonizing. Some are written in the first person, which makes the amoral quality of them even more jarring. The plots are clever and are the main point of these tales. Personality is far less in the forefront than in a typical James novel. It is as if James came up with six interesting schemes for how murders were devised and committed and then simply wrote them down without belaboring how a detective might discover who did them. Since this is P. D. James, there is far more to it. She swiftly and effectively sketches compelling characters and settings and then she brutally presents the murder. These are well worth reading.

These stories also suggest that one way to write a mystery would be to start with scaffolding of a well thought out, clever pot and only then write the novel around it. I wonder if James did that. Anyway, these are great stories!

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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.

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. 

S.D. Sykes’ Plague Land Presents an Complex Murder Mystery Against the Back Drop of Britain After the Plague

S.D. Sykes has written a masterful murder mystery set in the immediate aftermath of the Black Death in Britain.  Plague Land has an unwilling hero.  Oswald de Lacy, the third son of a minor British lord, was destined for the religious life, despite his lack of faith.  When Oswald’s father and two elder brothers are killed by the plague, Oswald inherits his father’s title and returns home literally to become the lord of the manor.  

In the course of an interesting plot and intriguing characters, S.D. Sykes tells her readers quite a bit about how the Black Death

Blood on Snow and The Demon of Dakar. —  Two Excellent Scandinavian Mysteries

I love Scandinavian mysteries, and Jo Nesbo’s Blood on Snow and Ekjell Eriksson’s The Demon of Dakar are both excellent.  They share an almost laconic delivery that is just very satisfying to read.  The characters are interesting, and there aren’t a lot of stereotypes.

Blood on Snow, a Norwegian mystery has a very macabre set of humor. It features Olaf, a somewhat hapless hitman who has become a target himself.  There’s really not a lot more to say about this.  It is a short book and clearly written.  The author’s unconventional take on how one falls into a career as a hitman is highly entertaining.  

The Demon of Dakar  is a more complex and serious murder mystery.  Dakar combines a rich set of characters enmeshed in the drug trade.  A trio of desperately poor and relatively naive Mexican brothers gets caught up in a trafficking mess.  Manuel, the eldest brother is determined to get some justice from a  malevolent crew of sleazy Swedish dealers, and this sets the book’s central crime in motion.  I really liked a number of things about this book.  The investigation process was interesting, because the police were dealing with such an unexpected scenario.  I also found the capable, strong and utterly believable female characters to be a great strength of the book.   Their gender undeniably causes them problems, particularly on the job, but they remain focused persevere .  These women don’t have it all together, but they are responsible people — they are grown ups — so they get the job done.  I also really appreciated the author’s handling of the bewildered, yet determined Manuel’s stumbling yet effective progress through an alien environment.  

Both books are well worth reading.

Hell Fire — Karin Fossum Writes Another Great Norwegian Mystery

Hell Fire is Karin Fossum’s latest excellent murder mystery.  As usual Fossum’s story is heavy with troubled family relationships and people who are struggling.  The detectives are not partcularly quirky; they play a background role in this family tragedy.  The all consuming struggle of two single mothers trying to cope with bad circumstances and parenting challenges moves this story forward.  There isn’t a lot  of emotion to the matter-of-fact narration, but the story is well told and compelling, and I found myself thinking about it quite a bit afterward.

Garnethill — The First, Very Troubling Mystery in Denise Mina’s Garnethill Trilogy

The wonderfully insightful review I had written of Denise Mina’s outstanding Garnethill has somehow vanished.  I’m sure it is my fault; I probably pushed the wrong button somewhere.

Anyway, this is a great and unusual murder mystery set in a seedy, struggling Glasgow.  This was Denise Mina’s first novel, and it was also the first book in her Garnethill trilogy.  Maureen O’Donnell is compelling protagonist.  Maureen has had a tough life, and it doesn’t seem to be getting much better when her married lover is found murdered.  She is worried for herself and her brother and starts getting curious.  She doesn’t really know how to investigate a crime, but she keeps poking around and thinking it through.  This is one of those great books where a very flawed and undisciplined character is thrust into a dangerous situation and thrives!  I rooted for Maureen O’Donnell every step of the way.  Her good heart, her curiosity and her previously untapped intelligence and good heart make her a stellar heroine.  There was enough hanging at the end of the book to suggest that the other two books in the Garnethill trilogy will be equally compelling.

Tigerman! An Oddly Charming Dystopian Tale

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Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman – A Novel, is a pretty strange book and unlike anything I have ever read.  Environmental disaster has struck and the population of Mancreu, a doomed island is fleeing.  Lester Ferris has been sent to half-heartedly mind the British portion of the retreat.   Ferris is ex-army, bored and feeling pretty useless, but he has befriended a young boy.  As tensions rise amidst increasingly vicious, yet seemingly random acts of violence, Ferris and the boy formulate a unique response.

The whole thing is a fast-paced and well-written mystery set within an environmental dystopia.  Lester Ferris and the boy are both great characters, and so I was hooked.  What I liked best was the way their friendship developed and the juxtapositions of their evolving relationship.  “Never assume” pretty much sums up this great read.