Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Knife Man

How could I have never heard of John Hunter?  The father of modern surgery, mentor to the founders of Pennsylvania Hospital and to Edward Jenner, and the inspiration for Dr. Doolittle?  He was a truly remarkable man, and yet even as someone who considers herself fairly aware of scientific pioneers, I had no idea who he was.  Then again, I've spent the past decade working a few blocks from the Mutter Museum and I still haven't managed to walk over there.

Surgeons are currently considered the top of the medical ladder, so it's easy to forget that only 300 years ago, the reverse was true.  Surgery in the pre-germ-theory, pre-anesthetic days was understandably a matter of last resort, and surgeons were only a few steps removed from the days when amputating limbs or excising tumors was a sideline for your neighborhood barber.  Doctors of every type had only a general knowledge of anatomy due to restrictions on dissection, and it was Hunter's skill with dissection that led to his groundbreaking work.

John Hunter was born in Scotland in 1728, the youngest member of a large family.  He didn't learn to read until he was about 10 (Moore suspects that he was dyslexic), and was generally considered unpromising when he moved to London at age 20 to serve as an assistant to his older brother, William.  A society doctor and medical lecturer, William needed someone to handle the less appealing parts of his job, and John proved to have a real talent for dissection.  More than that, he was wiling to steal bodies when necessary and combined a deep intellectual curiosity with meticulous note-taking, leading to major advances in medical treatment.  He was also willing to experiment on himself, notably by *not* operating on his ruptured Achilles tendon (theorizing that with rest and primitive physical therapy it would heal on its own) and by infecting himself with gonorrhea and syphilis in an attempt to determine whether they were two different diseases or two stages of the same disease (I suggest that the more squeamish among you skip that chapter).

Hunter's professional interests leaked into his personal life.  He was happily married to a minor poet from a higher social rank but had a long engagement because of the financial precariousness of his early career.  After they married, Anne carried on salons while John brought specimens and cadavers in through the back entrance (this house apparently inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to give Doctor Jekyll  a similar residence) and operated a menagerie of exotic wild animals.  Hunter was also short-tempered and a poor money manager; when he died of an apparent stroke while arguing with a student, he was deeply in debt and his carefully collected specimens had to be sold.  Many of them now reside in a museum operated by the Royal College of Physicians - a museum which is at the top of my list of places to visit during my next trip to London.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Dispensation of Death

I think Michael Jecks changed editors with Dispensation of Death.  It's a much more tightly plotted and cleanly paced book than his last several Sir Baldwin novels.  Or maybe he just realized he didn't need a subplot to get his novel past the 450-page line.  He's still keeping Baldwin and Simon away from their Devon homes, but at least he allows them to work as a team.

Baldwin and Simon have travelled to London; Baldwin to serve in Parliament and Simon at the request of the Bishop of Exeter.  They are thrust into a court in disarray - Edward II has essentially imprisoned his Queen Isabella with his niece (and his lover's wife) Eleanor as her de facto jailer.  Soon, a masked attacker kills one of her ladies in waiting and a known assassin's mutilated body is found behind Edward's throne.  Baldwin and Simon set out to solve both murders, despite Sir Hugh le Despenser's disguised threat to reveal Baldwin's history as a Knight Templar and the King's disinterest in solving the original crime once Hugh is himself targeted by an assassin.  Jecks effectively uses shifting POV to move the story along and neatly interlaces the plot threads, ending with a slight twist.  For the first time in a while, I'm looking forward to reading the next Sir Baldwin mystery.  I just hope that I'm not disappointed - the final page implies that his next adventure will be in France, and the knight's last overseas trip when the series started to decline.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Young Elizabeth

I'm fascinated by Elizabeth I, but her biographies, no matter how well written, can be slightly exhausting.  She was born into intrigue and chaos, alternately neglected and used as a political pawn, formed and and ruled a nascent empire, and then allowed her kingdom to slide back into intrigue and chaos as she crept towards death without clarifying her line of succession.  Alison Plowden avoided this problem by ending her biography with Elizabeth's coronation.  The Young Elizabeth shows how Gloriana developed from such an unpromising childhood.

The shorthand tale of Henry VIII is of a brutish man who cast off wives for frivolous reasons.  The truth, of course, is more complicated.  He and Catherine of Aragon had a companionable marriage, but only one surviving child, and England had not yet successfully been ruled by a Queen Regnant.  He fell in love - or in lust - with the sharp-witted, sharp-tongued, strong-willed Anne Boleyn.  Her charms led to a crisis of conscience (or so he told himself), telling him that his marriage to Catherine was cursed because it was adulterous for him to have married his late brother's wife, and he began the long political chess match that eventually led to the formation of the Anglican Church.   He married Anne, and when the disappointing birth of Princess Elizabeth was not followed by the birth of a prince, Anne's imperious ways meant that she had no one to help her when she was accused of adultery and treason and beheaded by a French swordsman.

Elizabeth was not quite three years old when her mother died, and if not exactly left to fend for herself, not exactly lavished with attention, either.  She, like her father and siblings, was highly intelligent and benefited from the best education available to a Renaissance royal.  By her teens, she was fluent in several languages, an accomplished horsewoman, and a talented and enthusiastic musician - in other words, ideally suited to be the bride in an alliance-cementing marriage.

The short reigns of both her younger brother and older sister made marriage negotiations difficult and her marketability questionable, particularly with the shifting religious lines in 16th Century Europe.  Henry VIII, despite the break with Rome, died as a self-identified Catholic whose widow nearly missed being tried for treason over her Protestant beliefs.  Edward VI, naturally a rather priggish boy, had been raised as strong and narrow-minded a Protestant as his eldest sister Mary had become a Catholic in the years she clung to her discarded mother and her faith.  Elizabeth's beliefs were apparently a more moderate form of Protestantism and her years in exile and captivity may have allowed her to develop the political compromise which was the Anglican Church.  Those years also taught her to be wary, trusting no one in a world where her stepmother's husband could nearly ruin her reputation with a few ill-advised games - and then suggest that he marry her after Katherine Parr died in childbirth.  Eleven years spent wondering whether she would be married off in an internal or international alliance, or simply beheaded on trumped-up charges like her mother could have destroyed her.  Instead, they forged the intellect that turned an almost forgotten girl into Gloriana - the first great Queen Regnant in Europe.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Accidental Billionaires

I'm probably the exception, but I thought that the weakest part of The Social Network was the dialog.  With the exception of Andrew Garfield's Eduardo Savarin and Rashida Jones's lawyer, everyone sounded the same.  I chalked that up to their otherness - Jones appeared in framing scenes rather than the main story, and Garfield's natural accent is English rather than American.  Whatever the reason, this distinctiveness made me find Savarin more sympathetic than the rest of the young men involved in the founding of Facebook.

Savarin does not come across quite as well in the source material.  He was Ben Mezrich's main source for The Accidental Billionaires, and serves as the narrator as well.  Saverin met Mark Zuckerberg at a fraternity event and they bonded over the pathetic nature of the party.  A few months later Zuckerberg created The Facebook - a database combining photo databases from the Harvard dorms, crashed the university's system, and altered how we keep in touch.  He's the brains - Savarin is the money.  An econ major who'd used a weather algorithm to make hundreds of thousands of dollars on the commodes market, he's not really up on the technical aspects of Facebook, but he has the cash to bankroll the startup and the business savvy to start the legal battle against the Winklevoss twins who'd asked Zuckerberg to develop a similar database for them.

That division of labor seemed to work until the semester ended and they ended up on opposite coasts.  Savarin had an internship in New York, and even though he gave it up before lunch on his first day, he remained there, soliciting investors.  Zuckerberg took the company to Silicon Valley, where he met Napster founder Sean Parker and immersed himself in programming, with breaks for raucous parties and occasional meetings with angel investors.  Saverin felt squeezed out, withdrew his funding, and another lawsuit began.

The Accidental Billionaires is largely a synthesis of he said/he said transcripts.  Mezerich examined court filings and interviewed some of the participants - but not Mark Zuckerberg.  Perhaps this is why Zuckerberg appears more sympathetic than his compatriots.  He's a cypher, but at least he's not a jerk.  Saverin talks about him, but never seems to know what is (former) friend actually thinks, and compared to Saverin's social-climbing, money-hungry insecurity and the Winklevoss twins' entitled arrogance, the almost personality-free programmer wins Mr. Congeniality by default.  He's a geek, but unlike the thin-skinned Olympic athletes and the socially awkward financier, he's comfortable with who he is.

Saverin is a striver, who seems more focused on status (and joining one of Harvard's exclusive clubs) and has the sort of misogynistic streak that comes from ignorance rather than hatred of women.  His offhand comments about unattractive female classmates and "Asian girlfriends" are rather distasteful, and not the sort of comments I remember my geeky college classmates making (although, to be fair, they might not make them in front of an actual girl).  His final scenes are rather pathetic, showing an almost unimaginably wealthy 20-something, trading on his fame to pick up "hot Asian girls" and his membership in the Phoenix club to impress students at his alma mater.  Zuckerberg seems to have remained so uninterested in his image that he still dresses like a 15-year-old, but maintained a long term relationship with the former classmate he married the week she graduated from medical school and Facebook went public.  I doubt he's a saint, and he might even be a jerk, but if you take money out of the equation, he still won.  And I wonder if that bothers Saverin even more than having his Facebook shares diluted.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Elephants Can Remember

Agatha Christie was over 80 when she wrote her last two books, and Dame Agatha had clearly lost her touch.  I remember reading Postern of Fate (her final novel) on vacation when I was 16, and thinking that it just didn't add up.  In 2009, a pair of Toronto academics analyzed several of her books, and determined that by the time she wrote her penultimate book, Elephants Can Remembershe may have been suffering from Alzheimer's Disease.   The authors also suspect that Christie may have realized that something was wrong.

Elephants Can Remember is a murder in retrospect, but one in which the past is shrouded in fog.  A domineering middle-aged woman confronts Ariadne Oliver after a literary luncheon and asks about the parents of one of Mrs. Oliver's goddaughters.  Did Celia Ravenscroft's mother murder her husband and then commit suicide, or was it the other way around?  Mrs. Oliver can barely remember Celia - she's one of a dozen or more godchildren - but she's more troubled by the fact that she's forgotten the death of her friend, Celia's mother.  She consults with Hercule Poirot, and the two decide to "hunt elephants" with Mrs. Oliver hunting down former hairdressers, maids and nannies and Poirot interviewing retired policemen and Swiss au pairs.  The answer is the sort of twist more worthy of an afternoon soap opera than a canonical mystery writer, but she supports the conclusion and ties it up reasonably well.  The rest of the novel, though, is a bit messy - a few characters appear and disappear without warning, the past scenes are indistinctly written, and while Christie has clearly set the book in 1971, it's a 1971 set barely fifteen years after the glory years of the British Empire.

Ian Lancashire, one of the Toronto researchers, saw a kind of heroism in Elephants Can Remember, and I agree.  Her avatar can't seem to remember where she put things and people who were important to her twenty years ago may as well not exist (although she has very clear memories of her own early childhood).  Mrs. Oliver fights the fog, though, and learns what truly happened to Celia's parents.  It's almost as if her creator were fighting to escape the mist which may have been clouding her formerly sharp mind.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Hound of the Baskervilles

I'm a bad mystery fan.  I've read very few of the Sherlock Holmes stories.  I don't think it's been a conscious decision, although I found The Hound of the Baskervilles more creepy than compelling when I read it in 8th grade English, but I don't remember being particularly enthralled by the few stories I read in a college class on mystery fiction either.  I have been impressed with Sherlock, though (and not just because of Benedict Cumberbatch's cheekbones, fantastic though they may be), so when my classic literature group chose The Hound of the Baskervilles, I was ready to give it another chance.

Arthur Conan Doyle became bored with Sherlock Holmes and famously killed him off in "The Final Problem."  A decade later, in response to public desire and probably financial considerations, he brought him back.  The Hound of the Baskervilles was Holmes first novel after his return and Doyle, apparently still bored with his creation, sends him off to hide in a cave for most of the investigation.  As for the rest of the story...well, I enjoyed it more than when I was 13, but not by much.  The plot is a bit contrived; I'm not fond of Victorian prose; and when Holmes explains how he solved the mystery, I felt that Doyle held back some of the information needed for the audience to reach those conclusions.  I'd much rather watch "The Baskerville Hounds" - the early scene where a nicotine-withdrawing Sherlock orders a witness to blow smoke in his face alone is more entertaining than the original source.

In the Devil's Garden: A Sinful History of Forbidden Food

I really wanted to enjoy In the Devil's Garden, but after a promising start, it disappointed me.  It has an intriguing premise - the examination of the seven deadly sins as they relate to food preferences and taboos.  Lust was interesting, with an aside into why apples eventually became identified with the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge (a combination of the suggestive image of the seed sac and political battles between two branches of primitive Christianity).  I also enjoyed gluttony, which was probably an easy chapter for Stewart Lee Allen to write.  Pride had some good points, such as how dinner invitations set and keep the social order, but Allen's less than compelling writing style began to wear on me.  Sloth and (surprisingly) greed seemed to be catch-all chapters, where Allen threw in bits of information he'd uncovered but didn't know how to present.  I expected more from blasphemy, but Allen explored cannibalism rather than religious taboos and seemed to be stretching to fit his examples into his thesis.  Finally, I just didn't buy his arguments on anger.  Among other things, he claimed that sports fans eat crunchy snacks because those snacks are violent.   As a sports fan who is not exactly adverse to said snacks, I have to say that sometimes a chip is just a chip.  Or a way to get the dip into your mouth without using utensils.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Poisoned Season

I've read the second and third books in Tasha Alexander's Lady Emily Ashton series out of order, and I wish I hadn't - not because A Fatal Waltz built directly upon A Poisoned Season but because the latter was a much more tightly plotted novel.  To be honest, I was a bit disappointed in A Fatal Waltz, and if it weren't for my slight obsession with reading in order (and the fact that I'd already bought the rest of the series), I might have just abandoned Lady Ashton.

The titular season is the London social season - an exhausting and expensive whirlwind during which the rich and the well-born try to save the estate or buy some class through an appropriate marriage.  Emily has recently come out of mourning for her late husband and is attempting to navigate the season on her own terms, accepting only those invitations that interest her and not being maneuvered by her mother into another marriage with a near-stranger.

Alexander introduces four threads which unravel Emily's plans.  A man claiming to be the son of Louis XVI arrives in London, charming the ton and becoming the main prize of the season's marriage market.    Soon after, someone poisons an acquaintance of Emily's.  As she investigates his death, Emily finds that she is being stalked and that someone has begun to spread scandalous rumors about her.  Alexander ties the four threads together quite neatly, and in an unexpected way - she didn't quite "get" me, but I didn't guess the identity of the murderer until a few pages before Alexander revealed the killer's identity.  Alexander also gives her supporting characters - Emily's suitor Colin Hargraves, her childhood friend Jeremy, Duke of Bainbridge, her bluestocking American friend Margaret, and Frenchwoman of a certain age Cecile - enough depth that their romantic entanglements and exposition scenes add to rather than detract from the mystery.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Disappearing Spoon

I used to be a chemist, but went to law school when I lost the joy of science.  That was a huge mistake (I probably should have taken courses in instrumentation or looked into lab management), but 17 years later, there's not much I can do about that.   I have, though regained my love of science through books like Oliver Sachs's Uncle Tungsten and Sam Kean's  The Disappearing Spoon.  Kean takes what could be a very dry topic - the periodic table - and illustrates it with a series of stories which vary from tragic (the possible suicide of the greatest chemist to have never won a Nobel prize) to the gossipy (Marie Curie's femme fatale reputation) to the simply bizarre (a kid who tried to build a nuclear reactor as an Eagle Scout project).  Along the way, Kean stops to mention practical jokes (the titular spoon is made of gallium which melts in a nice, hot cup of tea), expensive pens, office politics with world-wide implications, and why several early Nobel Prizes for physics went to chemists.  Science writers have to find a balance between not confusing the less-technically informed audience and not boring readers with a stronger scientific background.  Kean manages the task quite well.

Sunday, July 15, 2012


Last Friday, I was about half-way through Hardball and decided to read a few chapters before bed.  I looked up two hours later, having solved the murders maybe two page ahead of VI Warshawski.  Vic, I've missed you, and I've missed submerging myself so deeply into a novel.

Sara Paretsky plays with the timeline in Hardball, but subtly so we don't realize at first that most of the action is in flashback.  After interviewing a gang leader she defended decades ago, VI Warshawski arrives at her office to find it's been ransacked and her 20-something cousin Petra has apparently been kidnapped.  In Chicago to work on her father's friend's son's Senatorial campaign, Petra seems to have become obsessed with family history, routing through a box containing mementos from Vic's parents and asking for a tour of former family homes.  This frustrates Vic, but it's only after several weeks that she realizes that Petra's search ties into one of her active cases.

Lamont Gadsden was a low-level gang member who disappeared the night before a January 1967 snowstorm.  His mother always assumed that he'd been killed in a drug deal but his aunt believed he was a "good boy" and now, crippled by a stroke, she wants to know what happened to him.  Lamont's friends have either died, disappeared, or refuse to talk to Vic, and no one seems to care about a gang-banger who disappeared 40 years earlier, but as Vic investigates, she discovers that Lamont may have been involved in the murder of a peace activist the prior summer.  As she delves deeper into the case, she discovers that her father, whom she always thought of as one of the rare honest Chicago cops, was the arresting officer in the case and that an innocent man may have gone to jail.  Paretsky seamlessly weaves Vic's case with Petra's apparently inexplicable interest in family history, and also manages to fit in some Action Nuns, a chase on public transit, and the sad story of a "good girl" still pining after her "bad boy" 40 years later.

I've mentioned in several reviews that series authors have to figure out how to age their characters.  Initially, Paretsky aged Vic only slightly less slowly than in real time.  In Hardball, written nearly 30 years after Vic's debut in Indemnity Only, Paretsky seems to be using the same technique as her fellow trailblazer Marcia Muller used with Sharon McCone.  After a few installments which fudged the age issue, she's rebooted Vic's birth date.  Initially born around 1950, Paretsky places Vic's tenth birthday firmly in the summer of 1966 and moves her hockey-playing cousin Boom-Boom's death (a central plot point in 1982's Deadlock) to the mid-90s.  Perhaps then it's appropriate that Hardball accidentally dates itself with Vic dipping her toe into the world of social networking - through MySpace.

The Moonstone

Literary historians credit Edgar Allen Poe with inventing the modern mystery story, and that's why one of the major genre awards is the Edgar.  The credit for the first modern mystery novel, though goes to Wilkie Collins and The Moonstone.  Perhaps if he had a less silly-sounding first name, there would be an award named after him.

I'm generally not a fan of Victorian novels.  They're usually too sentimental for my taste, and they have a tendency to slip into sesquipedalian loquaciousness, which also doesn't appeal to me (this sentence aside).  That's probably why I hadn't read The Moonstone until my classic literature RAL chose it.  I enjoyed it, but I also think I could have spent another 30 years of mystery fandom without meeting Gabriel Betteredge

Gabriel is Lady Verinder's steward, a man very sure of his, and everyone else's, place in the world.  Now semi-retired, he ruled the lower servants, believed in the near-infallibility of his mistress, found the answers to all questions in his worn copy of Robinson Crusoe, and he narrates the set-up and the crime.  While Lady Verinder plans a dinner party for her daughter Rachel's birthday, her two nephews - do-gooder Geoffrey Abelwhite and dilettante Franklin Blake - propose marriage and are rejected.  Rachael receives a large, allegedly cursed diamond, wears it to dinner, and wakes up the next morning to find it's been stolen.  A few days later, a housemaid suspected of the crime commits suicide by throwing herself in the "Shivering Sands."

I found Gabriel's narrative moderately amusing but not particularly compelling.  Instead, The Moonstone came to life when Collins brought in other narrators, including Rachel's poor relation Miss Clack, her mother's solicitor Matthew Bruff, physician Ezra Jenkins, and Franklin Blake.  Covering the year following the crime, these narratives piece together motives and bits of evidence which may or may not clear the suicidal housemaid.  It's not Gabriel's fault.  He was saddled with the role of Basil Exposition and Collins should have set up the crime more efficiently.  Collins may have also found some of the other characters more entertaining to write (Miss Clack in particular), and he feels like he's having more fun solving the crime than setting it up.  I figured out "whodunnit" maybe a few pages sooner than I'd like, but on the whole I'd rate The Moonstone as an average-to-good mystery.

The story might not stand out, but The Moonstone's influence on later novels is clear.  Collins introduced or popularized the locked room mystery and the amateur detective; the multiple POV section foreshadows several of Christie's novels (including Murder on the Orient Express and Sparkling Cyanide), Jim Thompson's The Kill Off, and Marcia Muller's recent and compelling Locked In; and the police detective's decision to retire and grow roses calls to mind Hercule Poirot and his vegetable marrows.   The Moonstone may not have survived 144 years on its story alone, but the grandfather of the cosy mystery is worth reading. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Crunch Time

I'm used to characters series being ageless, so why has it begun to bother me?  Maybe it's because I've been reading a lot of historical series where the author can slow down time, or maybe it's because there are now several authors writing contemporary series I've been reading for nearly (or over) 20 years.  I've aged but they haven't - characters who were a decade older than I are now six or seven years younger.

Goldy Schultz is one of those characters.  I read Diane Mott Davidson's first two books in 1993, the year her third book was published.  Goldy was 33, had recently gotten out of an abusive marriage, and was trying to support her 11-year-old son with her fledgling catering business.  19 years later, Goldy is 37 and happily married to a policeman, Arch is 16 and (after a few bratty months, covered in a previous book) has become an all-around good kid, and Goldy's business is doing well enough, even during a recession, to hire an assistant.  Yolanda Fernandez, introduced as an old friend (although never mentioned before Goldy's last outing, Fatally Flaky) has lost her job and her home and is being stalked by her possessive ex-boyfriend.  A cop-turned-PI takes her in, but a few weeks later he's murdered and his house is firebombed.  Against the advice of her husband Tom, Goldy takes in Yolanda and her feisty, wheelchair-bound aunt Ferdinanda and begins to investigate whether Ernest McLeod's active cases led to his murder.  Davidson manages to combine a puppy mill, stalking, stolen diamonds, and an extramarital affair into a reasonably believable plot.

The biggest weakness is Goldy's goldfish memory - Davidson frequently introduces "old friends" who were never mentioned before and are likely to disappear from the series after a few installments - but I'll forgive her that as long as she keeps including such wonderful recipes.  If it weren't so hot out, I'd make her spinach quiche (there's Gruyere in the crust, so there's no way it can be bad) and Crunch Time Cookies (oatmeal cookies with chocolate chips and toffee bits).  I'll just think about them until I can turn on the news without hearing the words "heat index."

The Secret Adversary

I associate Agatha Christie with the 30s and 40s, sometimes forgetting the first decade of her work.  As a teenager, I decided to read her books in publication order so I've read her 1920s output, but for the most part haven't re-read those novels.  There may be a reason for that - if The Secret Adversary is exemplary, it took her a few years to find her voice.

Childhood friends Prudence "Tuppence" Crowley and Tommy Beresford meet by chance shortly after being discharged from national service into very Christie-like genteel poverty.  Over lunch, they decide to start a business as the Young Adventurers - willing to do anything, legal or illegal, for the right price.  They're overheard by a stereotypically sinister man who follows Tuppence and offers her a job which he withdrawals when she gives the pseudonym "Jane Finn."  Naturally, Tommy and Tuppence decide to find the real Jane Finn, a young American woman who apparently received important papers as the Lusitania sank.  They meet a member of the British Secret Service, a man who may be the next Prime Minister, and Jane's American cousin; Tommy gets kidnapped; Tuppence goes into service for the woman they think will lead them to Jane Finn, and in the end, it's Tommy's plodding nature rather than Tuppence's quicker wits which save the day.  It's a quick read, and Christie creates plausible streams of evidence for both main suspects.

What Christie does not do is create believable characters.  That was never her strong point, but having recently re-read several of her later works, it's particularly jarring here.  The criminals Tommy meets are rough, ethnic stereotypes and the main characters don't fare much better.  The Young Adventurers - particularly Tommy - are so "pip pip tally ho!" that as I read, images of a young Hugh Laurie playing one of his upper-class twits kept flitting across my mind, and I heard the American Julius Hersheimmer's lines as spoken by Graham Chapman playing a movie studio head.  They're cardboard cutouts created to serve the plot.  Lucky for Christie that she constructed such a clever puzzle.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Tailor of Panama

Espionage lives on lies.  You lie while trying to break through your opponent's lies, so how do you know if your source is telling the truth?  And do you care?  Harry Pendel of Braithwaite & Pendel, tailors to the most powerful men in Panama, has spent his entire adult life lying - harmless lies, to cover up his background, but he's become quite good at creating plausible fictions.  Andrew Osnard knows this, and he knows that Harry has squandered his wife's inheritance on a failing rice farm.  Who better than Pendel, who has access to the Panamanian power structure, to ferret out information on the fate of the Canal?

The Tailor of Panama is technically a spy novel, but the espionage is secondary to the interpersonal relationships.  Osnard is a con man, and though it's obvious to those at the highest levels of the service, they don't care and don't bother to inform those who believe he's a hard working spy.  He's so good at telling others what they want to hear that you wonder why he believes the elaborate stories Pendel tells him of the "Silent Opposition," or why he believes that Micky Abraxas, an alcoholic on the verge of suicide, is the leader.  Maybe he doesn't believe Harry - and doesn't care.  Osnard has no ties to anyone, no family, no friends, and his girlfriend is really just someone he has sex with.  Harry, though, has a family - two children and a wife who is slowly descending into the madness of her childhood memories, and two close friends, all of whom face the repercussions of his lies.  Eventually, Osnard walks away from the chaos he caused, leaving Harry to pick up the pieces of shattered lives in a broken country.

Thursday, May 31, 2012


I'm not sure how I feel about recurring criminals.  Any series - mystery or not - will have recurring characters, but even though Faye Kellerman has only used Chris Donetti in three widely spaced books, his presence feels more forced each time.  She introduced him in Justice, as a teenager with perfect pitch and a dark secret who went to prison to spare his girlfriend the trauma of testifying at a murder trial.  She brought him back in Stone Kiss, in his thirties and mixing crime and art and married although not living with his high school lover.  Hangman opens with Chris's wife Terry asking Lt. Peter Decker to act as security while she negotiates a separation from her violent husband.  Six hours later, Terry has disappeared and her and Chris's son Gabe has no one to call but Decker.

The following day, Decker goes out on a call - a young woman has been found hanging from a building site. It's not Terry, but Adrianna Blanc, a neonatal nurse at a local hospital.  Still investigating Terry's disappearance, Decker leads his team in the investigation of what may be the work of a serial killer.  Kellerman gives us two very plausible suspects and then carefully crafts (and supports) an ending surprising enough that she allows her detectives to state exactly how improbable that result actually is.

I know I've complained about the prevalence of subplots in the books I've read over the past few years.  Perhaps those authors should read Kellerman's work because she knows how to weave a personal story into the solution of a gory crime.  Because she started with relatively young characters, Kellerman has allowed them to age in approximately real time.  It's been nearly twenty-five years since The Ritual Bath and Peter's daughter is a police detective, married and expecting her first child, Rina's sons are in their twenties and living on the East Coast, and the couple are facing an empty nest as Hannah prepares for college.  Gabe Whitman has grown up in chaos, with a fiercely protective but emotionally guarded mother and a felonious father who occasionally drops in.  As Hannah tells him, no family is truly normal, but the Decker/Lazarus family is affectionate and stable, giving 14-year-old Gabe his first taste of real family life. I doubt that many authors could so seamlessly combine serial murder, missing persons, an emotionally fragile teen, and a sweetly touching family dinner to celebrate Decker's 60th birthday, but Kellerman manages it quite well.  Hagman is an effective mystery, tinged with just enough nostalgia to make me want to re-read the series from the beginning.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Endless Night

I think Agatha Christie realized that Third Girl didn't quite work, so she retreated to more familiar territory with her next novel.  Endless Night includes echoes of its era, with a girl I could easily see as a flower child, avant-garde architecture, and a more explicit linkage of sex and murder than we usually see from Christie, but with few references to cultural touchstones, it could almost take place any time between  the late 1950s and the advent of the cell phone.

Mike Rogers isn't exactly a drifter - he's more of an opportunistic small-time adventurer who moves around Western Europe chasing short term jobs.  He's been a fruit picker, a waiter, a stable worker, and a chauffeur, and it's while driving a rich couple to their almost completed house that he meets Santonix.  The architect is young but dying, and believes he only has time to design one or two more houses; Mike is poor but appreciates Santonix's work.  Perhaps it's a bit too coincidental that Mike soon meets an heiress by an allegedly cursed plot of land which would be perfect for one of Santonix's houses.  Maybe we shouldn't believe that Ellie's paid companion is a gorgeous young woman only interested in allowing her charge to escape the restraints of her avaricious family.  Christie, though, makes this set-up plausible, and since Mike is a non-omnicient narrator, we might expect kinks in the timeline or extra bits of improbability, chalking them up to the imperfections of human memory.

Mike and Ellie marry, move into the dream house Santonix designed, and immerse themselves in village society.  They're joined by Greta, who's been fired by Ellie's family and, much to Mike's chagrin, continues to manage Ellie's life.  Since this is a Christie novel, there is a death - Ellie's - and a death that looks like, but can't be, an accident.  Mike is the natural suspect, but he was also twenty miles away at an auction with a pillar of the local community.  Greta is innocent as well - she was shopping in London.  No one else had a motive, and the only believable person to have an opportunity has disappeared.  So who killed Ellie, and how?  The solution is one of Christie's more surprising twists.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Ashes of the Elements

I don't know how Ashes of the Elements ended up on my bookshelves - maybe my dad bought it at Atlantic because he thought I might like it.  I did, but probably not enough to hunt down the rest of the series.

The book starts with the murder of a poacher, not far from the gates of Hawkenlye Abbey.  Abbess Helwise stumbles on the body (almost literally).  The Sheriff of Trowbridge decides that the forrest people are responsible for the death.   Helwise doesn't trust his methods or agree with his conclusion so when a second poacher dies a similar death, she consults Josse D'Acquin who has recently been granted a nearby manor.  After a night in the forest, the two friends solve both this mystery and answer some nagging questions about the true identity of a postulate who'd been abandoned as an infant.  I found Ashes of the Elements amusing and well-plotted, but forgettable.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Third Girl

You're too old.  Nobody told me you were so old.  I really don't want to be rude, but - there it is.  You're too old. I'm really very sorry.

By 1966, Hercule Poirot would have been well over 100, and he only appeared in two 'new' novels after Third Girl (Curtain was written in the early 1940s).  Agatha Christie was also in her mid 70s, and about as able to understand the youth culture of the 60s as her detective.  Only four years separate Third Girl and The Pale Horse, but the societal changes of those years are highlighted by the later novel's urban setting.  Mark Easterbrook spends most of his novel in a 'timeless' small town or a less clearly dated counter-culture neighborhood; Norma Restarick is a creature of the mid 1960s.

Miss Restarick arrives on Hercule Poiroit's doorstep, bedraggled and confused and thinking that she may have committed a murder.  More through coincidence (in the shape of Ariadne Oliver) than the famous little grey cells, Poirot learns that she's the daughter of an executive who abandoned her and her mother 15 years earlier and has recently returned to London with a new wife and is now running the family business.  She's a 'third girl' - an extra roommate sharing a flat with her father's secretary and an art gallery employee.  Norma remembers bits of things - holding a bloody knife after seeing a fight in the courtyard, melting faces, the apparent suicide of her upstairs neighbor - and thinks she may be responsible.  She isn't, of course, and the first time I read Third Girl (at least 20 years ago), the solution was a surprise.

As I said above, Christie didn't seem to "get" the 1960 (I think that's why she retreated to a more rural and timeless setting for her next novel), and yet this is one of my frequent re-reads.  There's something about the overdone, slightly garish view of the 1960s that makes me think of watching movies on UHF channels as a kid in the 1970s - maybe that's the appeal.  It's also a very well plotted, and features Ariadne Oliver, my favorite Christie character.  I also find Christie's attitude towards 'modern girls' fascinating and perhaps a bit hypocritical.  She seems to say that home and children are the best - or even only - option for young women, and yet she was a career woman who divorced when her only daughter was young, and an adventurer who took a round-the-world trip (and was one of the first Britons to surf standing up) with her first husband and went on several archaeological expeditions with her second.  I'd never noticed those contradictions before, but they don't detract from my enjoyment of Third Girl.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Bedlam: London and Its Mad

The second of Catherine Arnold's topic-specific histories, Bedlam: London and Its Mad didn't leave much more of an impression on me than Necropolis: London and Its Dead did.  It's and interesting and apparently comprehensive history of the treatment of mental illness from the late middle ages through the early 20th Century, but a few days after finishing it, I don't remember many specific details.  Apparently informative and generally diverting, it's essentially disposable.  Arnold's prose is a bit dry, and suffers in particular when contrasted with Mary Roach's work.  I'd like to see what Ms. Roach could do with the same subject.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex

I should have known better. This is not the first book I've read by Mary Roach and I share her appreciation for the slightly absurd side of anatomy, so I knew that I'd giggle quite a bit during Bonk. Reading it in the quiet car was a mistake, and I should have recognized that fact before I faked a coughing fit while reading about how Ms. Roach's husband Ed won (and probably retired) the Supportive Spouse of the Year award. But more on that later.

Societally, I think we have trouble talking about sex without getting either nudge-nudge-wink-wink snickers or acting like a particularly earnest guest on Oprah. Which is a shame, because it's a serious subject, but also slightly ridiculous (years ago, my mom and her friends decided that if aliens ever invaded earth, all we'd have to do was tell them how we reproduce and the aliens would die laughing). That's why Mary Roach is the perfect author to tackle this subject. She's got a sense of humor and the ability to use it without denigrating any of the scientists or subjects she meets in her research. She appreciates the work done by a pair of Edwardian doctors who measured heart rates of subjects engaged in different activities from sitting to sex, but also imagines them doing a "vigorous foxtrot" with each other and then comparing the results to foxtrotting with their wives. Artificially inseminating sows is a part of modern-day agriculture, but only Ms. Roach would compare the necessary lifting and dropping of the pig's hind quarters to testing the shocks on a car. (Luckily, I was not in the quiet car when I read that...and I'm not sure how long it will be before I can test my shocks without thinking of bacon.) Whether observing procedures, visiting a sex-toy factory, discussing historical sex research, or discussing why women are physiologically more complicated than men, she leavens the clinical tone with plenty of non-insulting humor.

Humor, and a sense of adventure which is where Ed's support comes in. While researching the book, Ms. Roach found out about a study in which couples underwent MRI and ultrasound scans while having sex. Naturally, she wanted to observe and unsurprisingly, the scientists running the study were having trouble finding willing participants and asked if her "organization" knew of any willing volunteers. Free lance writers do not have organizations, but they do have husbands who ask "what's the catch" when offered an all-expenses paid trip to London (and possibly side trips to see Jeremy Irons on stage and/or to Stonehenge). Ed reluctantly agreed, and this led to the slightly surreal passage where one scientist is monitoring the data, the other one is chatting with Ed, and Mary is taking notes...all while Mary and Ed are having sex in an MRI machine. This is why I was giggling in the quiet car, and why Ed was clearly the most supportive spouse of 2007.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Tooth and Nail

If John Rebus has an iPhone, Siri is useless. Siri can't understand a Scottish accent and Rebus's accent and dialect serve as both a running gag and a stealth clue in Tooth and Nail, the only Rebus mystery to take place outside of Scotland. He's in London as a special consultant due to his alleged expertise with serial killers - alleged, because unbeknownst to the London police, the crime in Knots and Crosses wasn't actually a serial killing but a trap laid specifically for Rebus.

The Wolfman is killing women in London, brutalizing them after death, and then biting their abdomens. Rebus may not be an expert on serial killers, but he's a good detective and as an outsider, someone who can look at the case from a fresh angle. That angle includes listening to a psychologist who's researching serial killers, a flash of insight while wandering through an open air market, and another one while musing on the different English dialects. That turns out to be the key to the case, and leads to a car chase through central London with a judge along for the ride.

Rankin initially set out to write straight novels rather than mysteries (although if your first book involves a series of murders and your second high level corruption, you need to be fairly dense to not realize that you're a mystery writer), and while he seems to have come to terms with his genre status in Tooth and Nail, he does include a domestic subplot. Rebus's wife had moved to London with their daughter a few years earlier, and Sammy is now 16 and seeing a rising criminal. Rankin handles this better than most of the subplot-heavy mysteries I've read since starting this blog - it doesn't take up too much of the book or feel like an afterthought, and the links between the two are believable coincidences. Still, it's the least satisfying part of the book, mainly because Rhona is so faintly drawn and Sammy seems less fully fleshed than she did five years earlier in Knots and Crosses. But maybe that's the point - Rebus is a stranger in London and what drives that home more than finding out that he's a stranger to his daughter?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Pale Horse

The Pale Horse is another old friend. My copy was printed in 1974 and bought some time in the early 80s - there's a stamp inside the front cover from The Book Swap in Flourtown, but I know I didn't buy it there. Its another book with a packing-tape spine, and one I know almost by heart. I don't know how many times I've read it, but I clearly remember one time (perhaps the first one?). It was June of 1991 and I was driving back to Pittsburgh after my uncle's funeral. It was late and an intense thunderstorm hit as I navigated a construction zone with trucks flying by me. I pulled into the next rest stop and read a few chapters, just enough to make my hands stop shaking.

Christie's best (and best known) works were written in the 1930s and 40s, when socialites and servants and down-on-their-luck aristocrats were in their escapist heyday. Dame Agatha was clearly of the old school and didn't seem to 'get' the 60s and while her skills remained sharp, her material didn't seem to fit. The Pale Horse is one of her better late-era works, possibly because (as we've learned from Mad Men) the early 60s were more like the 50s than the wild world into which I was born. Academic Mark Easterbrook has taken a flat in bohemian, beatnik Chelsea while writing a book on Mogul architecture. Fighting writer's block and an empty refrigerator, he wanders into a Soho cafe and a fight between two wealthy girls 'slumming it' in dirty clothes and with unsuitable boyfriends. Thomasina (Tommy) Tucker loses the fight - and two handfuls of hair - but wins the boy, and two weeks later Easterbrook reads her obituary.

A few nights later, a priest who has just heard a dying woman's confession walks into another cafe, writes a list of names, and is murdered as he walks home. Police Surgeon Jim Corrigan notices his name, and the name of at least one recently deceased person - Mark Easterbrook's aunt, Lady Hesketh-Dubois. Corrigan and Easterbrook knew each other at university, so they discuss the list over coffee, and Easterbrook identifies another 'victim' - Tommy Tucker. Everyone on the list had people (mostly expectant heirs) who benefited from their deaths, but everyone on the list died from natural causes with the beneficiaries hundreds if not thousands of miles away, so how can this be murder?

Well, this is a Christie novel, so of course it's murder. Murder by remote control, courtesy of three witches who hold seances at a former inn called The Pale Horse. Coincidence, a friend's dim and ditzy girlfriend Poppy, and a request to bring Ariadne Oliver to a church fete bring Mark to The Pale Horse and into the acquaintance of art restorer Ginger Corrigan. Ginger and Mrs. Dane Calthrop, the vicar's wife (this is a Christie novel, so there has to be a distracted vicar with a down-to-earth wife) are the only people who agree with Mark that something evil is happening at The Pale Horse, so they set a trap with Ginger as the bait. As her health mysteriously fails, Mark tries desperately to solve the mystery. A comment about hair from Mrs. Oliver and seeing his cousin medicate a dog save Ginger (and, it turns out, at least three real life thallium poisoning victims, saved by medical staff who'd recently read The Pale Horse), and a discussion with an old schoolmate of Poppy's eventually reveals the 'who' and 'why' with just enough evidence against an innocent man to fit the Christie mold.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Fire Kimono

A civil war appears about to break out between Chamberlain Sano and Lord Matsudaira, and everyone except the Shogun knows it. Tokagawa is completely oblivious, so when the body of a cousin who disappeared 43 years earlier turns up, the boy's long-ago murder takes precedence. The boy had disappeared during a fire allegedly started when a girl burned a bad luck garment which came to be known as the Fire Kimono, so everyone assumed he'd been one of the thousands of unidentified disaster victims.

He wasn't. Tadatoshi had been murdered and his body buried near a temple. When the Shogun orders Sano to investigate, Matsudaira sees a way to push his rival aside, especially after he learns that Sano's mother may have been involved in the crime. If Sano does not solve the crime, he will at the very least be thrown from power, but if his mother is a murderer, then he and his wife, children, and retainers will all be executed as well. While solving the murder that may lead to his own death, Sano must also flush out his old enemy, Yanigasawa, who has escaped from exile and may be behind the current unrest. Rowland nicely ties questions of family, loyalty, and justice into the web of political intrigue, and even manages a happy ending for a few of her characters.

She's also dropped the mystical undertones of her past few books and that gives The Fire Kimono a more even tone than her previous few outings. Like most series, it's best to read the Sano Ichiro books in order, but this one is well contained enough to serve as an introduction to the series.

The Echo

I love how Minette Walters blends into her narratives e-mails, letters, medical reports, and newspaper clippings ostensibly written by or about her characters. With The Echo, she takes that one step further, by making the main character a journalist. Michael Deacon works for a newspaper that's trying to claw its way back to relevance with an article on Amanda Powell who found a dead homeless man in her garage six months earlier. Ms. Powell, it turns out, was the wife of a man who went missing several years earlier, and the man who died as Billy Blake was about the age Ms. Powell's husband would have been. Did she kill her husband, and was her husband Billy Blake? And if not, what happened to her husband and who was Billy Blake and why did he crawl into Ms. Powell's garage to die? With the help of a homeless teen, a retired lawyer, and a lonely photographer from his paper, all of whom adopt him in one way or another over the Christmas holidays, Deacon teases apart the coincidences and intentional acts which led to disappearances and deaths. Walters also creates a suspect so cold and unpleasant that we hope she's guilty, but manages to avoid the most obvious solution. The Echo is not quite up to the level of Walters best work, but it's an above average mystery and a nice diversion for a cold afternoon.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Locked In

Marcia Muller essentially invented the female PI sub-genre when she wrote Edwin of the Iron Shoes in 1977. Unlike her more famous contemporaries, Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky, Muller has never taken a break from her character or (IMHO, of course) experienced a serious slump. The San Francisco based investigator drinks her wine with a Retcon chaser to smooth over a few biographical issues (28 at inception, McCone turned 40 in 1999 and is maybe 5 years older a decade later, and while Muller still mentions the years in which McCone's former brother-in-law Ricky Savage was a struggling musician, the allusions are now vague fleeting), but Muller has also introduced new characters and allowed McCone's career to evolve so that there are few reminders of the 60s radicals with whom Sharon worked at the All Souls Legal Cooperative.

Muller has also begun to play with the traditional PI novel structure. Her prior installment, Burn Out, found McCone struggling against debilitating depression and taking on a pro bono case almost as a lifeline. Six months later, she's regained her footing, personally investigating cases which interest her and delegating most of the administrative work to her assistant, Adah Joslin. Returning to her office to retrieve her cell phone one night, McCone walks in on a burglary and is shot in the head. Miraculously, she survives, and wakes up ten days later unable to speak or to move anything but her eyes. Her employees believe the burglary and shooting are related to one of their recent cases so they search for and reopen those with red flags (the cold case of a murdered prostitute, an identity theft expert whose identity has been stolen, a missing persons case, a brutal knife attack on a financial advisor, and *something* odd at City Hall). This allows Muller to shift POV every few pages as four investigators follow the disparate threads, regularly reporting to Sharon who, in the end, manages to solve her own attempted murder.

I really enjoyed Locked In. The Rear Window To Eleven premise was new and interesting, and Muller built an exquisite puzzle with a logical, easily supported solution which she revealed only a page or two after I guessed what happened. There's a reflective quality to the book, as you'd expect when one of the six narrators can think clearly but can communicate only through blinking, and it left me thinking about Sharon's history.

I have all but the first three McCone novels sitting on my shelf (I loaned those to an administrator in law school and never got them back), and maybe it's time to re-read the series. 1977 is almost a foreign land, and even the early-90s installments I read after catching up on the backlist take place in a strange place without cell phones or widespread use of the Internet. Sharon was different, too - the product of Berkley at the height of the protest era and a city girl who's firmly planted on the ground. While still politically progressive, she's now a licensed pilot who spends her free time at her remote ranch and is more interested in environmental issues. The more I think about it, the more impressed I am with Muller's skill in allowing Sharon to evolve so dramatically over the course of the series without a single jarring shift in character. There's an academic analysis in there somewhere - or would be, if genre fiction were taken seriously.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Explosive Eighteen

Maybe Janet Evanovich needs to slow down. Explosive Eighteen made me laugh out loud (as Stephanie Plum's adventures always make me do), but the story never hung together. At the end of Smokin' Seventeen, Steph flew to Hawaii, but with whom - Ranger or Morelli? The answer was neither...but things got complicated. On the way home, her seat mate slipped a photo into her bag, left the plane at LAX, and was murdered. So now Steph has hit men, the FBI, and her family pressuring her to come clean about her vacation. On top of that, the bail bonds office still hasn't been rebuilt, she's having trouble with the low-level FTAs that pay her rent, Joyce Barnhart is making her life miserable (again), and Grandma Mazur has joined a bowling team headed up by Annie Hart who thinks Steph needs a love potion. There's a mix-up or two with the love potion, the shooting of a wig, a discussion of the physical resemblance between Tom Cruise and Ashton Kutcher (no, I don't see it either), and the most skeevey thing Vinnie Plum has ever seen - but not much of a plot. I recommend skimming the dull bits and slowing down when you start to giggle.

Taken at the Flood

It still surprises me how many Agatha Christie novels I managed to miss. I've re-read a few so often that they're nearly committed to memory, and others have sat abandoned on my bookshelf for decades. Taken at the Flood is one of those abandoned Christies, and it might have remained frail (my copy is a 1972 paperback bought used some time in the early 80s) and alone on my shelf if it weren't for a read-a-long in Ravelry's Agatha Christie group. Gordon Cloade was a wealthy man whose less affluent relatives (two brothers, a young cousin, and a middle-aged cousin and her daughter) depended on eventually inheriting his estate. Unfortunately, he married a young actress and soon died intestate, thus leaving his estate to his widow. She appears to be a soft touch for her late husband's money-seeking family but her brother is made of sterner stuff. There's blackmail, railroad timetables, and Hercule Poirot's little grey cells - everything you expect from Christie, but I'd rate this outing as middling. I didn't find any of the characters particularly engaging or entertaining, and the ending seemed more contrived than usual. Perhaps it's because Christie ventured out of her comfort zone - in most of her books, even the down-on-their-luck aristocrats retain their aristocracy, and even during the Great Depression and World War II, socialites act like socialites. Christie wrote this shortly after the war ended but with rationing still in full force. Perhaps she felt that she couldn't ignore the threadbare existence around her, but it just doesn't feel like "Christie."

The Outcast Dove

I read a few mid-list mystery series - books that don't make the best seller lists but apparently sell enough copies for the authors to keep the series going for a decade or more. That's what I loved about Borders - a 'big box' has the shelf space to carry the second and third tier authors, and will even have copies of their prior installments.

Sharan Newman is one of these authors. I 'found' her at book 5, and bought the next three installments as they came out. By the time The Outcast Dove (the 9th in the series) was published, the big boxes were in trouble and I eventually stumbled across my copy in the Daedalus catalog. It's been a while since I spent any time in Catherine LeVendeur's 12th Century France, and in that time, I'd lost track of some of the family relationships. Catherine's father Hubert was Jewish and forcibly converted as a child, one of his brothers escaped and eventually became his trading partner, and a third brother voluntarily converted and became a monk after disowning his son Solomon who eventually went into his uncles' business, taking over Hubert's partnership when the older man returns to his Jewish faith.

The Outcast Dove is a solo outing for Solomon, although he encounters both his father and Hubert, as well as a knight named Jehan who was once engaged to his cousin's sister. Luckily, the plot does not hinge on knowing the relationships between the characters because if it did, I would have been totally lost. While on a secret mission to free a family friend's fiancee who'd been kidnapped and forced into prostitution, Solomon must also discover who murdered another friend's prospective son-in-law and guard an unbalanced woman another associate is returning to her family. That may sound like a bit too much plot, but Newman ties the three lines - and a personal matter of Solomon's - quite neatly. The killer is a surprise, but fully supported by the preceding 300 pages, and most of the characters have a happy ending. I enjoyed The Outcast Dove, but I think I would have enjoyed it more if I'd read it either with no knowledge of the rest of the series or without a 5+ year gap since the last installment.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Private Diary of Mr. Darcy

Just what it says on the tin - The Private Diary of Mr. Darcy tells the story of Pride and Prejudice from Fitzwilliam's point of view. That's not particularly original (and this isn't the first inversion I've read), but I'm willing to give almost any Pride and Prejudice spin-off a try. I probably should have skipped this one, though, because the characters didn't feel right. I just can't see Darcy visiting brothels - having an arrangement with a discreet widow, perhaps, but not gallivanting with Lord Byron and following his lead towards bacchanals. I was also uncomfortable with the transformation of Wickham from a mere cad to a rapist, and I can't see the Darcy I know protecting such a character. What I did like was the novel's treatment of Lydia Bennett - instead of a selfish brat, she's a silly child who's been seduced and there's an edge of panic to her exhibitionism as she begins to realize what lies ahead.

A Dark Adapted Eye

Warning - Spoilers

I still don't know who is Jamie's mother, and neither does his cousin Faith. I've read A Dark Adapted Eye at least five times, and I've seen the miniseries, and every time I lean towards a solution, some piece of evidence pulls me back.

Vera Hillyard killed her sister Eden in a fight over the child to whom both claimed to have given birth. Decades after Vera's execution, a writer approaches the women's niece for help in untangling the mystery. Vera's son Francis has disavowed his family, and their older half-sister and respective husbands were not present for most of the important events, so the only reliable witness is their niece Faith Severn. As a young teenager, Faith escaped the London Blitz by living with her aunts, an intruder in a suffocating mutual-admiration society. Brittle, housekeeper-extraordinaire Vera had devoted her life to her much-younger sister, shipping her son off to boarding school and living apart from her officer husband when Eden was orphaned at age 14. By 1939, Eden had grown into a beautiful and outwardly sweet young woman - the ideal of femininity according to her sister, and an ideal which Faith could never hope to achieve.

Eden joined the WRENs, leaving Vera (who was only in her late 30s) lonely and wishing for another child (the son she'd abandoned a decade earlier had become - or perhaps always was - a manipulator who found joy in psychologically torturing his mother), so no one was surprised when Vera announced her pregnancy. Jamie, however, was born 10 months after Vera's husband shipped out, thus casting doubt on his paternity. Three years later, Eden married a wealthy man and after an ectopic pregnancy left her infertile, she temporarily takes custody of Jamie from an ailing Vera.

This is where things get hazy. Faith, by this time, is a Cambridge student and receives much of her information second hand or in bits and pieces to be assembled later. Her narrative is full of "I heard" and "I think" but the gist of it is that Eden refused to return Jamie to Vera because she claimed to be his mother. More than 30 years later, Faith still doesn't know which woman was telling the truth. Was Jamie the result of an affair or of a rare (but not impossible) 45 week pregnancy? Or did Eden leave the WRENs more than a year before the war ended (Faith saw her aunt in mufti when Eden was allegedly still in the service) because she was pregnant, and then gave her son to Vera to raise? This time around, I thought Eden was Jamie's mother...until I didn't. And then I did.