Friday, June 21, 2013

The Witch in the Well

And now, the chanson is complete.

I've read a lot of final installments.  Some don't feel final, and other series seem to limp to the end of the author's contract and bear the mark of a creator bored with his or her creation.  The Witch in the Well falls into neither category.  I assumed it was the final chapter in Catherine LeVendeur's saga because Sharan Newman has moved on to other series, but it doesn't read like a conclusion...and yet it does.

Catherine and her children are spending the summer at her brother's castle when they receive a summons.  All their grandfather's descendants must return to their ancestral home to fulfill a prophesy and save the castle's well.  Everyone includes Catherine's sister Agnes, who married a German man, and their mother, Madeline, who broke with reality several years before and has been living in the Paraclete convent and has been escorted to Boisvert by Edgar's younger half-sister Margaret, as well as Catherine, Edgar,  Guillaume, Marie, and both couples' children.

They arrive at Boisvert after a strange encounter with an old woman who was trampled by one of their horses, and then disappears as if by magic.  Things get stranger when they meet their cousins.  There are no children and people seem unable to die.  That is, until one of Catherine stumbles across the body of one of her cousins, apparently stabbed to death by Madeline.  Madeline disappears soon afterwards, and all assume that she drowned herself in the drying well.  While Catherine tries to solve the prophesy, the castle prepares for a siege and tries to discover the traitor in their midst.

Newman's solution ties both plot threads together nicely, covering the mysticism with a layer of rational cause and effect, but more importantly, she brought the LeVendeur family saga to a happy ending.  Catherine and Agnes still bicker like children, but they love and appreciate each other.  All three siblings and their spouses work well together and love each other through the occasional exasperations of family life.  The ending for high-born Margaret and Catherine's cousin Solomon is more bittersweet, but delicately written and the best the characters can expect.  The Witch in the Well is a good mystery, bookended by scenes from an affectionate family's ordinary life.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Postman Always Rings Twice

Sometimes I'll read a classic that I admire more than I like.  The Postman Always Rings Twice falls into this category.  It landed on several "Best Novels of the Century" or "Essentials" lists, and I understand why.  It just left me cold.  Perhaps it's the coldness of the characters, but the casual anti-everyone language (which was true to the era) may be part of it as well.

We view the appropriately sordid events that unfurl around a Southern California road stop through the unreliable eyes of Frank Chambers.  He's a drifter who finds a job at Nick Papadakis's diner and begins an affair with Nick's wife Cora.  She's a Midwest beauty pageant winner who came to California for a screen test and instead of being "discovered," discovered that she had no talent or screen presence.  Frank and Cora plot to kill Frank, fail in their first attempt and then succeed.  It's a steamy, brutal book, with an unexpected twist.

So why didn't I like it?  I don't need nice or sympathetic characters, but Frank, Nick, and Cora are tissue-thin.  I don't usually mind brutality, but there was a sexual tinge to the violence that made me uncomfortable, and the blatantly prejudiced language seemed extreme, even for a 1940s pulp novel.  Maybe I was also comparing it to Mildred Pierce, Cain's non-genre novel which I found so compelling.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

City of Sin: London and Its Vices

London, City of Sin
London, the place we grew up in
Just one great big loony bin
                  - Opening song of "Elephant!" in The Tall Guy

I thought of The Tall Guy as I read City of Sin: London and Its Vices.  The third book in Catherine Arnold's trilogy is more entertaining than the first two installments due to some strategic name-dropping, but in the end it didn't make much of an impression.  A historical assay of adultery, prostitution, and pornography, sprinkled with tales of well-known sex scandals, it's not boring, but it's not deep either.  Very little of it seemed new and fresh, but then again, that's why they refer to prostitution as the oldest profession.  More diverting than its predecessors, City of Sin is only slightly less ephemeral.

Strip Jack

Inspector John Rebus may be congenitally incapable of happiness.  Either that, or he's incredibly unlucky.  His new relationship seems to be failing from the start, he's a pawn in the battle between his alcoholic boss and the man who wants to replace him, and he's dealing with three totally unrelated crimes (a politician named Gregor Jack caught in a prostitution sting, stolen rare books, and a homeless murder suspect who's disappeared).  Normally, I'd consider it too coincidental for these three threads to tie together, but Ian Rankin manages to combine them cleanly, and with a murder - that of Jack's wife.  As Rebus investigated her wealthy, fast-lane friends and Jack's "old gang," it becomes clear that Jack has been betrayed and doesn't know it.  The final scenes, with the murderer holding Jack hostage before being chased through a wooded area during a thunderstorm are a bit contrived, but somehow the book held together for me.