Tag Archives: Crime fiction

Grey Matters – Clea Simon

An academic mystery about a dissertation in danger, the ghost of a psychic cat, a professor on the edge of dementia, rare books and forgeries and a very dead graduate student on the front walk should be interesting. I thought it was, for a while. But all the dialog sounds like the same person, even the feline ghost’s. And the protagonist is an amateur sleuth for no especially compelling reason. Everyone is endlessly solicitous as she was the one to find the corpse outside her faculty adviser’s home. And a BIG mystery about her too-busy-to-see-her boyfriend is so transparent that it is annoying to keep being hammered over the head with hints about it.

Grey Matters is a sequel to another Harvard murder mystery written by Clea Simon–same Dulcie Schwartz, doctoral candidate; same dangers lurking in the stacks, same boyfriend. The Cassandra-like grey cat was alive in the earlier book. It’s replacement in this book is a cute but annoying kitten which does not deliver pronouncements in stentorian tones to warn our heroine of extreme peril. I stayed in it for the biblio mystery–who wrote the anonymous Gothic fragment? Forgery or the kind of gold that makes an academic reputation?  I never got invested in any of the characters, even the murder victim. They seemed like stereotypes. The wicked kitten was pretty good, though.

Grey Matters (Dulcie Schwartz Mystery)   Clea Simon | Severn House    2009

The Body in the Library – Agatha Christie

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Some days, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, of the village of St. Mary Mead, is the only remedy for the clamoring global village we inhabit. They serve tea in her world. And they converse. And she solves every glimmer of a crime, of course, without batting an eye or missing a cream scone. So The Body in the Library was the perfect read for today.  The body, a young strangulation victim with dyed blond hair and chewed fingernails, turns up in the morning as the servants pull back the drapes in the library of a friend of Miss Marple. Lucky for the annals of crime. It’s a bit more comfy-shabby than Downton Abbey but the whole servant-local-gossip-our-kind-of-people thing is very much in evidence. So are a few telling clues that our sweet sharp-eyed sleuth spots promptly while everyone else is dithering about being official.

Can’t spoil this for anyone who likes Christie and hasn’t read it yet. But it’s safe to say that there is more than one body; there are numerous, logical suspects; social systems get slightly but never fatally deconstructed; and Miss Marple’s powers of deduction are formidable, as ever. The characters are either caricatures or incredibly shallow and insubstantial but that’s not why you were reading this murder mystery in the first place, is it? The plot is as tangled as a runaway ball of yarn–the motive is anyway–but Jane Marple remains undaunted and unravels the mess without breaking a sweat.

In the end, crime solved, justice served, and probably tea, too. It would be nice to have a shelf of unread Christie murder mysteries lined up, like a supply of Xanax, to blunt the sharp edges of too much real life. Real life is occasionally this theatrical and lethal–but never this neat.  

The Body in the Library: A Miss Marple Mystery (Miss Marple Mysteries)   Agatha Christie | Signet  2000

Tigerlily’s Orchids – Ruth Rendell

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Ruth Rendell’s Tigerlily’s Orchids was a disappointment. The story wanders around the apartments in one building in a neighborhood outside central London—the novel is half-over before anyone dies and you don’t much care when they do. The flats are occupied by a motley bunch of losers, students, suicidal alcoholics, pedophiles, hapless naifs and hippies way past their primes. (Sigh.)

The intrigue isn’t very intriguing, the crimes are pedestrian and sort of grimy—murder excepted. But the main victim fails to elicit much sympathy, the second corpse has already taken too long to die by the time it’s toes-up, much about the lives of the inhabitants is sordid or just relentlessly banal. None of the large cast seems to have much future—or much present, for that matter.

I was bored. But I did learn something–I figured out why some books work for me and some don’t, even in the same genre and even when the authors are well-regarded. When I don’t like a book it is often because the characters are unappealing, do stupid things that will cause them foreseeable problems and don’t have anything I would find interesting to look forward to. I just can’t care about dull-witted characters. Personal failure of imagination, no doubt.

So, Ruth Rendell may be a genius of crime novels but Tigerlily’s Orchids had no orchids, no Tigerlily, a flaccid plot and a double-decker busload of forgettable people. I’ve read books that are really bad and this wasn’t one. But I wouldn’t have pushed through it if I’d had time to crack another novel and finish by day’s end.   

Tigerlily’s Orchids: A Novel   Ruth Rendell | Scribner   2011

The Vault – Ruth Rendell

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The Vault is a Ruth Rendell Inspector Wexford mystery—the jacket calls it a “novel” and it can lay claim fairly to that description. Rendell writes a complex, nuanced, character-rich tale that mixes criminal industries, social inequalities, personal failings, family relationships, architecture, geography and gardening into a Mensa-like puzzle that will keep you glued to the page. Or screen, I suppose.

Wexford is retired but not very complacently. When a younger colleague asks him to take on the discovery of four bodies as an informal advisor to the case, he jumps at the chance. This involves some delicate footwork for the intuitive, experienced old detective who no longer has police privileges and can’t be seen as trying to take charge. He isn’t entirely successful but he is always mindful of his new, reduced position.

The owner of a storied cottage in London unearths a grisly burial when he removes the manhole cover from an unused coalhole in the center of a paved backyard patio. Three bodies have been down in the vault for a dozen years, a fourth body for merely two. No one knows who they might be so Wexford sets about solving the crime or crimes. There are many rancorous relationships that may have provided motive but the decade between the deaths is a stumbling point as is the fact that none of the bodies matches any missing persons reports.

The retired inspector is dogged, if hamstrung by his lack of authority, but personal crises interrupt his sleuthing. His daughter is stabbed and nearly dies—that story is more complicated than first revealed and progresses to a horrible conclusion. Wexford’s living arrangements are unsettled—he and his wife shuttle between their old home in Kingsmarkham and a London carriage house provided for them by their other daughter. His new habit of walking everywhere puts him in the pink of health but his old habits place him in harm’s way and nearly do him in.

Building, surveying, renovating, changing seasons and landscaping have as much to do with the crime as xenophobia, predation and greed. Wexford’s eye misses little, from the link between mood and fashion to the precise color of a prized Edsel to the facial tics that disclose deceit. Rendell has not won every mystery writer’s award on the planet for nothing. Her crime novel is polished, well-paced, salted with enigmatic clues and perplexing developments. The Vault yields its secrets reluctantly—Wexford and his puzzle keep you guessing until the end. A thorough workout for the brain and an inducement to track Inspector Wexford as he fails at retirement but meets the challenges of solving the crime.

The Vault: An Inspector Wexford Novel   Ruth Rendell | Scribner  2011

Started Early, Took My Dog – Kate Atkinson

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Kate Atkinson, acclaimed British novelist, shifted her sights to crime a few novels ago and garnered instant accolades for her work in that genre. When Will There Be Good News? was layered with motive, memory, mystery and well-developed characters in vivid  environments as lovingly crafted as the plot. In Started Early, Took My Dog, some of the characters are back and the meticulously drawn people, elements and events are as thick as the puzzle pieces in any literary novel.

This time ex-cop, semi-retired private detective Jackson Brodie is vagabonding around the countryside in a used Saab, having been grifted of the several million a former client inexplicably left to him in her will by a con who married him to get closer to the cash. He’s hunting for the identity of a New Zealand client who was adopted as a toddler and can’t find any evidence of having existed as an infant. And hoping to track the missing “wife” and his bankroll, although with little expectation of success. At the same time that Brodie rescues a small, abused dog from a violent thug, retired cop Tracy Waterhouse rescues an abused kid from a prostitute by paying a thousand pounds cash for her on impulse.

The kid is a 4-year-old girl who settles right into life on the lam as her new guardian tries to clean her up, take care of her and avoid discovery as an impulsive childnapper. The dog is smart, compliant and might be a thoroughbred—it comes with a collar that says its name is “The Ambassador.” The cast of characters rapidly expands forward and back through time as the pursued and the pursuers try to outrun and outfox each other, trailing their lost loves, tragic memories and scores-to-settle after themselves like streamers of semaphore flags.

There are crooked cops, bereaved cops, crimes of passion with revolting aftermaths, an aging actress with Alzheimer’s, a retired conman with answers, missing social workers, cheap hotels, pricey parties and personal ghosts interwoven in the chase. Started Early…is not a thin or minimalist murder mystery. It is rich in detail, complex enough to demand attention—no casual read with myriad interruptions will do it justice–and centered on human hopes and failings more than on the crimes themselves. There are a lot of crimes. The resolution is not predictable or at all neat.

One of the pleasures in this book for me was the version I read. More than a year ago I spied it on a table of new mysteries at an independent bookstore with tall stacks, library ladders and regular shipments of hardbacks from England. I bought it on a whim and tried to keep my face blank when I discovered that it cost more than $50.00. Support for indie bookstores and hesitation made the book improvidently mine. Then I had no time to open it in the scramble for enough freelance work to keep the rest of my books housed indoors along with the people in our family. But my imported copy has every Britishism intact. It was a lot of fun to read, untranslated into American English.

Started Early, Took My Dog is a good mystery but not a “wow” mystery. Reading it nearly straight through helped me to keep the various threads from tangling. I like Kate Atkinson and will read her books again. But, if you get the chance, grab the British version and enjoy the flavor of the language that adds to the strong sense of place Atkinson creates.

Started Early, Took My Dog: A Novel      Kate Atkinson | Doubleday  2010