Thursday, June 30, 2011

Mildred Pierce

I bought Mildred Pierce during my early-90s noir period - it's a 'quality' paperback on the Vintage Crime label, and the cover price is $6.95, considerably less than the rapidly disappearing pocket-sized paperbacks I prefer go for today.  "Crime" is also a bit of a misnomer - while Cain was best known for his thrillers and the 1944 movie adaptation was reworked as a murder mystery, Mildred Pierce is a straight domestic drama.  

At 17, Mildred married Bert Pierce and quickly had two daughters, Veda and Ray.  They lived well off the sale of new housing subdivisions until the Depression hit, leaving Bert (who'd never really had a job) essentially unable to cope with his uselessness.  Mildred, who'd been making a few odd dollars baking cakes and pies, threw him out, looked for work, and eventually swallowed her pride and became a waitress in a downtown diner.  With the help Bert's former business partner, she opens a restaurant, and eventually expands her business to three restaurants with different atmospheres and a commercial baking business supplying pies to other establishments.  Then, because of her poor choice in men and inexplicable devotion to her monstrous daughter Veda, loses it all.  

I know it sounds like a fairly routine book, but what saves Mildred Pierce is the characters.  Bert's a decent guy, just not quite up to the challenges of surviving the Depression, and he stands by Mildred, proud of her success and there for her when she fails.  They don't really want to divorce, and maybe Mildred would have been better of staying with him.  But she doesn't - as her business takes off, she begins an affair with Monty Bergeron, a wealthy man who sleeps with her and scorns her and take her money when he his family fortune disappears but bonds instead with Mildred's haughty teenage daughter Veda.  There's a subtext there that 'polite' novels would have ignored in 1941, but I suspect that pulp readers saw what I saw in Monty's comments about Veda's emerging bust, or in the closeness between the two.  Mildred, however, doesn't see anything inappropriate in the relationship between her daughter and her lover, and also doesn't see that her beautiful and musically talented daughter constantly manipulates her.  It's Mildred's devotion to Veda's musical career that leads to the loss of her business, and eventually to her loss of Veda.

The other thing I noticed while reading Mildred Pierce was how foreign the novel's setting appeared, even though it takes place in the decade before my parents were born.  Not everyone has a telephone, radio was new, and a blood transfusion from a professional donor with no testing or typing is seen as a potential cure for a bacterial infection.  Like Knots and Crosses, Mildred Pierce is set in the close enough past to be recognizable, but far enough away to be almost an entirely different world. 

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Vintage Caper

A friend of mine used to have a second job in a movie theater.  A few times a year, he'd tell us what lobby posters were available and he'd get them for us - I've got Casino Royale and A Perfect Year hanging in my living room.  While it's nice to see Russell Crowe in a sunbeam as soon as I walk in my front door, that's not why I wanted that poster - I'm a big fan of Peter Mayle.  20 years ago, my mom handed me Tojours Provence and I was hooked.  Mayle has crisp, descriptive writing style and a dry sense of humor - and he appreciates good food.

Movie producer Danny Roth has a problem.  It's not that he's totally repellant (apparently, that's beneficial to his career), but that no one appreciates his sophisticated palate and his multi-million dollar wine collection.  Naturally, he arranges for the LA Times to do a puff piece on his collection, and equally naturally, someone steals it while he's skiing in Aspen.  Elena Morales, the VP for private claims at Knox Insurance calls her ex-flame, lawyer-turned-criminal-turned-investigator (and all-around connoisseur) Sam Levitt look into the theft.  Sam's a typical Mayle hero - charming in a roguish sort of way and attracted to brilliant and witty  women who just happen to be incredibly attractive.  After a consultation (over a gourmet meal, of course) with a friend in the LAPD, Sam flies to France, meets Sophie Costes from Knox's French office, and Sophie's journalist cousin Phillipe.  Together, they conclude that Roth's wine was stolen by a media magnate I can only describe as a French Burlesconi and devise a suitable resolution.

The Vintage Caper isn't Mayle's best novel (that would be Hotel Pastis), because it's much too routine.  Sophie is suitably sophisticated and Phillipe is suitably rumpled, and at times the plot seems to be an excuse to string together a series of meals.  The meals, though, are fabulous - Mayle may have lightly lifted some dishes from his travel writing, but these meals are worth repeating - the plot holds together, and Mayle's dialogue is (as always) brisk and witty.  I read the final few pages on the train one evening, and smiled so broadly that my seat mate asked what I was reading.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Knots and Crosses

Ian Rankin didn't set out to write mystery novels.  How he could have thought that he would not have been listed as a 'mystery novelist' when his first book focused on a police detective hunting a serial killer is even more of a mystery than the plot of Knots and Crosses, but it doesn't detract from this compelling psychological novel.  

We first see John Rebus at his father's grave, and that sets the tone for Knots and Crosses.  Rebus is chronically depressed and psychologically scarred by his military service.  He's recently divorced, on uncertain terms with his brother (a stage hypnotist), not well liked by his colleagues, and he lives in a very grey version of Edinburgh.  There's a serial killer stalking pre-teen girls, and Rankin alternates between the investigation in which Rebus is involved and scenes featuring his 12-year-old daughter, Samantha.  

Knots and Crosses is a well-written, tightly plotted mystery, and I didn't guess the killer until a few pages before the end.  What struck me, though, was how different the world was in 1987.  There are no cell phones, few computers, no internet...Samantha looks for a library book in a card catalog and the investigation involves shuffling paper instead of scrolling through screens.  There's even a brief passage discussing whether computers will ever replace legwork.  1987 is an almost foreign world, but I lived there - as a college student and a legal adult.  How odd will the world depicted in books published today feel in 2025?