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.