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.