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.