Friday, December 26, 2014

Strong Poison (TV series)

When did the BBC replace their cardboard set with actual walls and furniture?  Somewhere between Murder Must Advertise's questionable staircase (its apparent flimsiness makes the fatal fall that occurs on it very believable) and Pride and Prejudice's elegant sitting rooms, the BBC transitioned between bare theatrical sets and staging to movies for the small screen.  1987's Strong Poison is not quite half-way between the two.  The sets are still sparse but more of the set dressing appears real rather than painted on, and the actors occasionally break from the all-facing-the-audience staginess.  For me, anyway, the producers' attempts to make the show less "stagey"backfired.  They added in just enough realism to make the cheapness of the sets and minimization of extras and supporting characters more apparent.

I enjoyed the adaptation (it's mostly faithful to the book), and Harriet Walter was well-cast as Harriet Vane.  She and Edward Petherbridge, as Lord Peter Wimsey, have good chemistry (although I prefer Ian Charmichael's take on the character, playing the fool and forcing others to underestimate him).  I was less satisfied with how the other supporting characters - Bunter, Inspector Charles Parker, and Miss Climpson - were portrayed.  Bunter was too subservient - the literary (and cardboard-set) Bunter is Lord Peter's friend and crime-solving partner, not "just" his manservant, and Charles was reduced to cameo status.  The real disappointment, though was Miss Climpson.  Sayers wrote her as an elderly spinster, apparently fluffy and twittering but very sharp-minded.  Here, she's not even in late middle-age and not convincingly dithery.

Persuasion (1971 tv series)

I love the cardboard-set era British TV dramas.  Part of it, I'm sure, is nostalgia for Sunday nights spent watching (and, at the time anyway, not totally understanding) UK imports on Masterpiece Theater, and some, such as Upstairs, Downstairs are a bit campy when seen today.  Others, like the Ian Charmichael Lord Peter adaptations and I, Claudius stand up quite well.  Persuasion falls into a third category.  It's well acted in its stagey way, but has neither the transcendent performances of I, Claudius, the light wit of the Lord Peter mysteries, nor the high-quality suds seen in Upstairs, Downstairs.  Jane Austen's strength was skewering the more pompous (and gold-digging) members of country society, but this version of Persuasion takes even Sir Walter Elliot and his silly eldest and youngest daughters at face value, rather than letting us see the humor in their collective vanity.  It's this sort of reverential view of the cannon which turns people off the classics.  The series was very faithful to the book, so it can't be all bad, but in some places was almost as flat as the sets.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Strong Poison

- But, by the way, you're bearing in mind, aren't you, that I've had a lover?
- Oh, yes.  So have I, if it comes to that.  In fact, several. It's the sort of thing that might happen to anybody.  I can produce quite good testimonials.

There's something faintly ridiculous about Lord Peter Wimsey.  He's a bright, active gentleman who hides that behind the mask of a foolish, idle aristocrat.  Of course his first proposal to Harriet Vane wouldn't be the typical dinner-and-roses affair.  Instead, it's the postscript to Lord Peter's promise to find Harriet innocent of murder.  Someone killed her former lover, Peter Boyes, with arsenic a few weeks after Harriet bought some while researching her most recent mystery novel.  Except for the coffee Harriet had served him, nothing he'd eaten in the prior 12 hours had been eaten by him alone (and only the omelette he shared with his cousin, Norman Urquart had been eaten by only one person).  A stroke of luck (and, to be honest, coincidence) saved Harriet from the scaffold - Miss Katherine Alexandra Climpson, proprietor of Lord Peter's investigative secretarial service was on the jury and just didn't think Harriet Vane killed Phillip Boyes.  The hung jury gave Lord Peter a month to investigate.

If Harriet didn't kill Boyes, then who did?  Lord Peter, through one of those potential testimonial-givers, meets Harriet's and Boyes's bohemian crowd who agree that the psychology of the case is wrong - but don't know who else could have killed Boyes.  Upon meeting Boyes's father, he learns of a possible motive - a scandalous great-aunt may have left him money, and Norman Urquart, an attorney, handled the estate.  With the help of Miss Climpson (who impersonates a medium to spy on an impressionable nurse) and an experienced secretary placed by Miss Climpson in Urquart's office, Lord Peter finds the motive and deduces the (now scientifically discredited) means.  While she relies a bit too much on coincidence, Sayers wrote, as usual, a tightly plotted and highly amusing mystery.  Once again, re-reading allowed me to really appreciate the humor in Miss Climpson's highly emphasized letter to her boss, and I can just imagine the apparently fluffy-brained spinster enjoying her evenings as One Who Speaks to the Dead.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Lavoisier in the Year One

I'd forgotten about phlogiston.   Now, of course, it sounds ridiculous, but 250 years ago, at the dawn of chemistry, scientists needed something to explain how materials lost - or gained - weight when burned. The Year One in Lavoisier in the Year One refers to the revolutionary calendar (the one I learned in high school French class - and also forgot about), but the book is really about the start of organized chemistry.  Lavoisier - a socially awkward member of the haute bourgeoisie who trained as a lawyer - largely created science as we know it.  He discovered or co-discovered dozens of elements, created (and named) the concepts of acids and bases, and meticulously designed lab equipment and techniques still used today.  Madison Smartt Bell frames Lavoisier's scientific achievements with the events leading to his execution at the hands of the French Revolution, and while those scenes are interesting, he would have had a more interesting book if he'd left that as an afterward and spend a few more pages exploring Lavoisier's revolutionary thoughts.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Top Secret Twenty-One

I just looked back at my reviews of Janet Evanovich's books, and there's a theme.  Ms. Evanovich needs to slow down a bit, because she's become too dependent on a formula.  It's a good one (the plots, despite the wacky details, are well crafted and I laugh my way through each installment), but it's a bit tired.  Top Secret Twenty-One has two main plots, but otherwise fits the mold.  Stephanie's hunting for Jimmy Poletti, car dealer, smuggler, and Stephanie's ticket to continued rent payments.  Meanwhile, a Russian assassin from Ranger's past is trying to kill him.  Mix in vodka tastings, angry little person Randy Briggs, Grandma Mazur's bucket list, radioactivity, and feral Chihuahuas and the result is an entertaining but essentially forgettable comic mystery.  Worth reading if it's there, but not up to the standards of the series's early installments.

A Crimson Warning

Lady Emily is back in London, enjoying (or enduring) the round of parties known as The Season and encountering scandal.  Someone has been painting the town red - or rather dumping red paint on the houses of people whose scandals are revealed soon afterwards.  Needless to say, Emily throws herself into solving the mystery.  Along the way, she takes an active role in the suffrage movement, her friend Ivy plays matchmaker for a political operative, and both befriend a scandalous society matron whose carriage is pulled by zebras rather than horses.  It's an average outing for Tasha Alexander's aristocratic sleuth.  I missed Celine and Margaret, but Emily's childhood friend Jeremy elegantly slouches through a few scenes and the story is well plotted, even if the solution is slightly less than satisfying.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Break Down

Sara Paretsky has written two non-genre novels, and they break her VI Warshawski mysteries into three eras. There are the classic Warshawski novels, written and set in the 1980s and early 1990s.  That Warshawski is a pioneer, both in character and in her position as one of the Founding Mothers (along with Marcia Muller's Sharon McCone and Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone) of the hard-boiled female PI novel.  I remember them as classics and assume they'll stand up on re-reading, but their setting (before cell phones, electronic searches, and 24-hour news) may as well be a foreign country.  Between Ghost Country and  Bleeding Kansas come Warshawski's middle period, four novels I enjoyed but which didn't seem to make much of an impression.  Paretsky seemed to struggle with adjusting her heroine's age and with the 24-hour media world established by the turn of the 21st Century.

Hardball kicked off VI Warshawski's renaissance, a tightly written, fast-paced mystery I literally could not put down, and one in which Paretsky gracefully shaved a few years off VI's age and placed her comfortably in the digital world.  Her next two novels haven't been quite as good as Hardball, but I've enjoyed them.

Break Down starts out in a graveyard on a rainy summer night, where VI, at the panicked request of her cousin Petra, searches for a group of tweens holding an initiation ceremony based on a Twilight-like series.  She finds them near the fresh corpse of a somewhat disreputable private investigator.  VI gets the girls out of the graveyard, deals with the police, and thinks that's the end of her involvement.  It's not, of course - VI finds herself being pulled towards the case by the powerful and connected mothers of two of the tweens she retrieved from the graveyard, by a former classmate in the midst of a manic episode, and by her friend Murray's fight for his journalistic career in a media conglomerate more interested in promoting a Glenn Beck clone.  Paretsky deftly ties the threads together, although she paints the Beck character a bit too broadly.  Still, she shows why she deserves her position in the mystery writing pantheon.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All

I remember the DTP scare.  Every news magazine in the early 80s did a segment on how the pertussis part of the combination vaccine, although still safer than the disease, caused seizures and possibly brain damage.  England switched to pertussis-free DT vaccine (and faced a wave of whooping cough cases), and the pertussis vaccine was eventually reformulated.  Infectious disease expert Dr. Paul Offit starts Deadly Choices with this scare.  A scare that laid the foundation for the current anti-vaccine movement, and one that wasn't supported by the evidence.  There was no link between the pertussis vaccine and seizures once epidemiologists analyzed the data, but not until a spate of lawsuits drove most vaccine manufacturers out of the market and a combination of Congressional hearings and additional news stories planted doubts in the minds of parents.

Dr. Offit spends about half of his book discussing this false scare and the anti-vaccination groups it spawned.  An undercurrent of fear, a lack of familiarity with what were once common diseases, and the presence of a few well-organized groups meant that when Andrew Wakefield's falsified study claimed there was a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, people were ready to believe.  Most of the MMR discussion is familiar, but it bears repeating.  Multiple studies have shown that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism, and while no vaccine is 100% safe it is several orders of magnitude safer than any of the diseases it prevents.

Offit's style is an odd combination of ranting and plodding (he's a doctor, not a writer), but his passion comes through.  He also does a good job of explaining how low vaccination rates hurt the population in general.  Unfortunately, I suspect that his audience consists entirely of those who trust in science, not the anti-vaccine crowd who need to learn the truth.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Mirror Crack'd

After reading The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side, I decided to watch the movie.  Released in 1980, The Mirror Crack'd appeared between two Poirot adaptations (and two of my favorite movies), Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun.  The Mirror Crack'd isn't quite in the same league.  It's entertaining, but plays a bit like an episode of Colombo.  We see a murder, a roster of suspects, familiar faces in typecast roles, and the underestimated detective solves the crime in under two hours with a slightly intrusive soundtrack which brings smooth jazz to a mid-20th Century English village.  It's no a bad movie, just a bit forgettable.

There are a few highlights.  I particularly liked Angela Lansbury's performance, which was pricklier than how Miss Marple usually appears on screen, and she mostly compensated for the fact that she was at least 20 years too young for the part.  The movie also added some back-stage scenes to Marina's movie, and some sniping between Marina and co-star/rival Lola Brewster.  Kim Novak, as Lola, and Tony Curtis, as producer Marty Fenn, chewed just enough scenery to be entertaining, and Elizabeth Taylor played Marina as a desperate woman who still knows how to manipulate an audience.  I also like Edward Fox's movie-fan Inspector Craddock, and the script is surprisingly faithful to the book.  Still, it's a bit too neat, even for a comfortable Christie.  Fun, but forgettable.

If you do watch, take a close look at the young man playing Lord Darnley to Marina Gregg's Mary Stuart.  Under that unfortunate hairstyle and costume is a future James Bond - Pierce Brosnan in one of his earliest roles.

The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side

Warning - spoilers

It's been a rough few weeks, so I pulled another frequently read Christie off the shelf.  I don't read The Mirror' Crack'd from Side to Side as often as, say Sparkling Cyanide, but I've read it often enough to nod familiarly at several passages.

The 1960s have come to St. Mary Mead, bringing a suburban development and a supermarket to the edge of the quiet village.  They've also brought frailty to Jane Marple, and the indignity of a paid companion who believes that mental decline accompanies (or precedes) physical decline.  Needless to say, Miss Marple is much sharper mentally than the clucking Miss Knight, and manages to slip away from the younger woman's smothering attention for a brisk walk through The Development.  She's busy confirming her view that human nature doesn't change - those tough-looking boys are posing and will grow up to be steady young men; that young woman cannot trust her fiancé - when she trips over a rough piece of pavement and is "rescued" by Heather Badcock.  We've all known a Mrs. Badcock - she's always the first to volunteer for a committee, works tirelessly, and annoys the world with her generosity.  Kind-hearted but so single-minded that she cannot see whether her help is needed (or wanted), she "comforts" Miss Marple with a cup of over-sweetened tea and the somewhat rambling story of how she left her sickbed, slathered on makeup, and met her favorite star (and current resident of Gossington Hall), Marina Gregg.

A few weeks later, Heather meets Marina again, launches into the story of their prior meeting, and then dies after drinking a daiquiri meant for Marina.  Luckily, the detective sent by Scotland Yard knows Miss Marple and keeps her appraised of the investigation.  No one can see either motive or opportunity for the attempt on Marina's life, or a source for the threatening letters which follow.  And yet, there must be a plot because two murders (of the butler and of Jason Rudd's secretary) follow. Miss Marple puts together Heather's illness, Marina's frozen look, and an indeterminate pronoun and realizes that Heather was the intended victim.  When they'd met a dozen or so years earlier, Marina had been pregnant and Heather ill with rubella.  Marina had contracted the illness, and the subsequent damage to her child had led to a breakdown from which he had never fully recovered.  Since the debut of Sherlock, I've looked at Christie's novels with an eye towards modern-day adaptations.  Sadly, with the rise of the anti-vaccination movement, I can see The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side fitting into the 21st Century quite well.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Killer of Pilgrims

Michaelhouse College entered 1358 in financial shambles thank to Wynewyk's creative accounting in A Vein of Deceit.  Attempting to rebalance the books, Master Langerlee took on more students and the food - historically poor - has become scarce as well.  He also accepted the patronage of wealthy and repellent Emma de Colvyll who, in exchange for masses said for her late husband, promised to replace the leaking Michaelhouse roof.  Unfortunately for Matthew Bartholomew, his college's deal meant he was now private physician to the devil - a cranky devil who doesn't want her infected tooth pulled, and whose romance-reading granddaughter has set her sights on the doctor.  Meanwhile, Cambridge was, for once, free of town/gown battles, but only because there was a war of jokes between the colleges and the less-affluent hostels.  Oh, and someone was stealing pilgrims' badges.  Just an ordinary winter in Cambridge.

Well, until someone found John Drax's body behind the tiles intended for the Michaelhouse roof, a death quickly followed by that of Emma de Colvyll's daughter.  Are these deaths connected to the thefts, the war of practical jokes, or both?  Brother Michael, as Senior Proctor, needs to find out before the college/hostel conflict spreads from the University to the town and, as usual, enlists Matthew's help.

As a mystery, The Killer of Pilgrims is OK.  Gregory supported her conclusion and I didn't guess the culprit right away, but the final scene was a bit far fetched and the solution wasn't particular memorable. As entertainment, however, it ranks a little higher.  There's plenty of action, and several well-integrated comic scenes, including one where four physicians (three of them quite drunk) experiment with pitch, oil, and assorted chemicals in an attempt to create a light brighter and steadier than a candle.  Needless to say, it does not go well, but the disaster made me laugh on my commute home.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Innocent Victims

Warning - spoilers

How reliable is any narrator?  I enjoy books, particularly mysteries, told by an unreliable narrator, but isn't any non-omniscient narrator at least somewhat unreliable?  Minette Walters's novels (with the exception of The Chameleon's Shadow) aren't exactly unreliable, but they're working with limited information.  Innocent Victims isn't a novel but a pair of novellas, both written as Book Week promotions but with different purposes.  Chickenfeed, the fictionalized retelling of a 1924 murder case, is a quick read meant to encourage less-fluent readers into trying fiction.  It's a testament to Walters' skill that I didn't notice how simple the vocabulary and structure were until I read The Tinder Box, which was written to tempt readers into trying new genres.

Chickenfeed's main narrator is Norman Thorne, a teenager recently demobbed from WWI who catches the eye of Elsie Cameron, a volatile and unstable young woman.   When he loses his job as a mechanic, he decides to open a chicken farm several miles from London, and they plan to marry once the farm is successful.  Norman had bought his farm impulsively, though, and two years later, it's still losing money.  Worse than that, he's fallen out of love with Elsie (if he ever was in love with her) and in love with Bessie Coldicott while Elsie's letters and occasional visits show her declining mental state.  One winter night, Elsie, who'd convinced herself she was pregnant, traveled to Norman's farm where she was discovered hanging from the rafters in his shack.  Norman claimed that he'd been out and that Elsie had probably mean to scare him but had accidentally knocked over the chair she was standing on and died as a result.  Was that the truth?  Maybe - he kept to his story through the investigation and his trial, but how believable is that story?

Siobhan Lavenham can't reliably narrate The Tindebox because she's been lied to.  Her neighbor, Patrick O'Riordan allegedly killed an old women for whom he made some repairs and her nurse, and partially at Patrick's mother's request, Siobhan became his only defender.  It's easy for her, actually - although she's lace curtain and the O'Riordans are clearly shanty, Biddy O'Riordan appealed to Siobahn's Irishness - and the dead woman's heirs were unpleasant and bigoted.  What Biddy didn't do was tell Siobahn Patrick's violent history or how she and her husband became disabled. Eventually, the O'Riordan's deceptions and a series of misunderstandings between Siobhan and her other neighbors led to tragedy, but, as we find out, the victims and criminals are not whom we suspect.

Monday, September 29, 2014

V is for Vengeance

Kinsey Milhone never thought that stocking up on panties at Nordstrom's would lead to someone breaking her nose on her 38th birthday, but V is for Vengeance leads her from the lingerie department to a corrective rhinoplasty.  As she's browsing the racks on an April afternoon, Kinsey sees an older woman slip some silk pajamas into her shopping bag.  She alerts the store staff who apprehend the shoplifter, but not the thief's younger accomplice who nearly runs down Kinsey in the parking lot.  That evening, Kinsey has a drink at Rosie's with the Nordstrom's employee who helped capture the shoplifter and thinks that's the end of the story.

Of course it's not the end, because otherwise this would be a very short book.  A few days later, Kinsey reads Audrey Vance's obituary and recognizes the dead woman as the shoplifter.  Her landlord Henry is in Michigan to be with his sister Nell who's recovering from surgery, so his brother William - hypochondriac and husband to the imperious Rosie - partially fills his role here.  He's not particularly insightful, but he has developed a funeral-going hobby and drags Kinsey along to Audrey's funeral where she meets Audrey's fiancé.  Marvin Striker doesn't believe that Audrey committed suicide, so he hires Kinsey to find out who killed her.  Unfortunately, he doesn't want to believe that Audrey was a con woman and professional thief and fires Kinsey who continues the investigation on her own time.

Like Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton has employed a shifting POV in her recent novels.  Unlike Muller, whose alternate narrators are Sharon McCone's fellow investigators, Grafton gives her criminal a voice.  Lorenzo Dante is the mobster out of central casting - suave, vaguely dangerous, and with a veneer of respectability, and that whiff of danger may be what attracts Nora Vogelsong, the bored wife of a Hollywood attorney.  It's not clear until near the end of V is for Vengeance how those two fit into the plot, or why the burglar who taught Kinsey to pick locks and an irritating TV reporter keep showing up.  Grafton, however, is an experienced mystery writer and a clever plotter, so the coincidences never feel forced.  The Millhone series started out strong but (as many series do) slumped a bit around the twelfth book.   Maybe it's the shifting POV, but Grafton's last three books have been among her best (my favorite is still C is for Corpse).  I'm glad I waited until W is for Wasted came out in paperback before buying V is for Vengeance, because now I can read the two nearly back-to-back.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Marseille Caper

Warning - spoiler for The Vintage Caper

Peter Mayle's novels read like his travel books - wonderful meals and beautiful scenery separated by clever character sketches, with a lightweight plot thrown in as a bonus.  The Marseille Caper has fewer meals than usual, but Mayle makes up for it with a bit more plot than usual.

The Marseille Caper starts where The Vintage Caper left off, with Francis Reboul asking Sam Levitt how he found and returned Danny Roth's wine collection.  Reboul isn't angry that his stolen goods have been illicitly returned, though.  Instead, he has a job for Sam and Sam's insurance executive girlfriend, Elena Morales.  Reboul is the silent investor in a company competing for the rights to develop a piece of land in Marseille, and he wants Sam to act as his front.  Reboul's plan is one of three,  and the icy Parisian architect doesn't offer serious competition.  Lord Wapping, the vulgar turf accountant who bought a peerage (and a yacht named The Floating Pound), however, has Marseille's planning commissioner in his pocket and a pair of bodyguards who miss beating up people.  What does Sam have?  Well, Reboul's plan sounds good, plus he has Elena, his journalist friend Phillipe and his girlfriend Mimi, and an Englishwoman of a certain age.  They're more than a match for a desperate and bankrupt thug with money.  Mayle's books aren't deep, but they're vividly written and a lot of fun, and Sam, Elena, Phillipe, and Reboul are engaging characters.  I'm looking forward to Mayle's next Caper.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Believing the Lie

Elizabeth George isn't quite back on form, but she's getting there.  While not quite up to her late-90s peak, Believing the Lie us her best book since A Traitor to Memory.  Ian Cresswell drowns in his uncle, Sir Bernard Fairclough's boathouse in Cumbria.  The local coroner decides it's an accidental death, but Fairclough asks Assistant Commissioner Hillier for help.  Hillier, of course, summons DI Tommy Lynley to his club, gives him the assignment, and tells him he's on his own - no help from the Yard, and if things go wrong, he was never sent there.  Without the Yard's help, Lynley turns to his friends Simon and Deborah St.James to join him, Simon for his forensic expertise and Deborah to surreptitiously investigate Fairclouth's son.

Meanwhile, tabloid reporter Zed Benjamin is also on his way to Cumbria to save his soon-to-be spiked story.  Fairclough's son Nick, a recovering addict, has organized a project to restore a pele tower with rehabbing addicts performing the labor as a form of therapy.  It's an inspiring tale - but not sexy, at least in the eyes of Zed's editor.  Sadly, Zed isn't much of a tabloid investigator, and when he hears that a Scotland Yard detective is also investigating Nick Fairclouth and his wife Aletea, he assumes it's Deborah - who plays along under the guise of DS Cotter.

Believing the Lie focuses in Lynley, but George periodically shifts the focus to DS Barbara Havers in London.  Under Acting Superintendent Isabelle Ardery's orders, Havers has fixed her teeth and (when officially on duty) her wardrobe, but Ardery still isn't pleased with the brilliant but rough-edged detective.  Particularly when Barbara knows about Lynley's case and Isabelle - with whom Lynley has been having a (not as) clandestine (as he thinks) affair - does not.  Havers's search turns up information on Aletea Fairclough and a series of misinterpreted conversations lead to tragedy in Cumbria.

As usual, George weaves several side plots (they're too important to call them subplots) through her narrative.  There's Lynley's affair with Ardery, of course; Ian Cresswell's disturbed and victimized son; Nick's sisters, responsible Minette and woman-child Mignon; and Havers's increasingly awkward relationship with her neighbor Taymullah Azhar.  Azhar and his daughter Hidayyah came into Barbara's life in Playing for the Ashes, and she's grown close to both of them.  Hidayyah is the sort of little girl who never speaks when she can sing or walks when she can skip and she's helped Barbara heal from her series of family tragedies.  Barbara's relationship with Azhar seemed to be taking tentative steps towards romance, until Hidayyah's mother Angela Uppman returned at the end of This Body of Death.  Barbara reluctantly enters a friendship with the chic woman (who does help her satisfy her boss's edicts), and that puts her in an awkward position - and sets up George's next book.  I'm looking forward to Just One Evil Act, not just because I enjoyed Believing the Lie, but because it focuses on Barbara Havers.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Death Comes to Pemberly

Death Comes to Pemberly surprised me, but not the way I expected.  PD James is one of the 20th Century masters of the mystery, and Jane Austen derivatives and sequels tend to be OK rather than great.  James, however, handled the "fanfic" well and then tacked on an unsatisfying mystery.

James starts by retelling Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of Meryton gossip.  We're used to Lizzie's point of view, but it's easy to see how the too-observant (and probably too vocal) heroine might not be as popular in town as her friend Charlotte Lucas.  To their fellow ballroom denizens, it's Lizzy who sets off to ensnare a rich husband and Charlotte who's lucky enough to marry as fine a man as Mr. Collins, and when Lydia runs away with Wickham, the town's main concern is whether Mr. Bennett will do anything to Longborne that would decrease the value of Charlotte's inheritance.

Six years later, Lizzie and Darcy are preparing for Lady Anne's Ball when Lydia arrives at their door (on, of course, a dark and stormy night).  She'd been traveling with Wickham and Captain Denny, but they'd both left the carriage in some sort of conflict which Lydia is too hysterical to accurately describe. Darcy, Bingley, Col. Fitzwilliam, and Georgiana Darcy's suitor Henry Alverston go into the woods in search of Wickham and Darcy and find Lydia's husband, drunk and sobbing over Denny's dead body.   Darcy sends for the local magistrate and after an inquest, he holds Wickham over for trial.

James devotes about a third of the book to the trial and its aftermath, and it was a bit of a letdown.  I found the plot to be both overcomplicated and implausible.  Her tone also lost some of the wit present in the opening section, and something else bothered me.  Austen's books were set approximately when they were written, but James references both Emma and Persuasion in a context that only works if those later-written books occurred before Pride and Prejudice.  Both references are fleeting, and yet they bugged me.  Not enough that I wouldn't recommend Death Comes to Pemberly to a fellow Austen fan, but enough to irritate me.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Takedown Twenty

Once again, Janet Evanovich pulled out the Stephanie Plum formula, and once again it worked.  Evanovich has been coasting since about book ten or eleven (my theory is that with multiple series, she's spread herself too thin), but Takedown Twenty made me laugh and contained a decent mystery.  Uncle Sunny - beloved to the Burg for his habit of crooning Sinatra at weddings while wearing a red bow tie.  That habit clearly outweighs his reputation for killing people, so when some kid uses his phone to video Sunny running over someone, well, public sentiment is on Sunny's side.  Not on the side of the bounty hunter tasked with bringing him in.  Oh, and Sunny is also Joe's Grandma Bella's nephew, so Steph not only has to bring in a "connected" and popular old man, Bella has cursed her.  And she keeps seeing a giraffe (which Lula has named Kevin) running around Trenton.  Maybe she's better off helping Ranger find the serial killer who murdered a Rangeman client's mother.  Or maybe she should go to work for the butcher her mother has invited to dinner.

While not up to the first dozen Plums, Takedown Twenty is a funny, fast-paced, and well plotted book.  Evanovich works in car death, a crazy Lula outfit, Grandma Bella in a Mets cap, a secondary FTA, family dinner, and a funeral without making it feel like she's working from a checklist.  It's an afternoon's diversion, and not so taxing that you can't read it while sipping some of Mrs. Plum's "iced tea."

Friday, August 29, 2014

This Is Improbable

My favorite IgNobel prize was the one awarded to the inventor of the run away alarm clock.   She won the Economics prize - for getting people out of bed and to work on time.  That's not included in This Is Improbable.  What you will find is reports on the speed of fingernail growth, alternative uses (easing sweaty hands and cracked nipples) for tea bags, how people view "Norman" when he's dressed as a punk versus when he's dressed as an accountant, and the amount of stress a strapless gown can bear before, well, leaving the wearer bare.  All of these studies first appeared in Annals of Improbable Research edited by Marc Abrahams.  They're all silly on the surface (and some are side projects which must have been conceived after a third drink), but some (like the IgNobel winning Wasabi Fire Alarm) have real applications.  As Abrahams says, the IgNobels go to achievements which make you laugh - and then make you think.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Whole Enchilada

Diane Mott Davidson slumped a bit after her first half-dozen Goldy Schultz mysteries, and the series has been uneven for the past decade-plus.  I never stopped reading, though, because they remained entertaining and Davidson always includes several fantastic recipes.  The Whole Enchilada is my reward for sticking with the series.  Not only do I want to try every included recipe, it's one of the best books in the series.

The book opens with a birthday party for Goldy and her friend Holly's son Drew.   Goldy and Holly met in the maternity ward and bonded over their sons and their bad marriages to doctors.  Both divorced and formed a support group with Marla (Goldy's ex's other ex) and a few other women, but as their lives improved (and Holly moved to Denver) the women drifted apart.  Holly moved back to Aspen Meadows and while the boys picked up their friendship, Holly seemed a bit distant.  That worries Goldy, but the spring/summer catering season is about to start and she's dealing with an overbearing client who wants everything to be perfect for his mousy daughter Ophelia's surprise 21st birthday party.  Her personal life is busy as well - her former assistant Julian has closed his cafe in Denver, rejoined Goldy's business, and moved in with the family and Goldy and her husband Tom are thinking about having a baby together.  So Goldy puts her concerns aside until she and Holly can catch up.

But Holly dies as she leaves the boys' birthday party - and it appears that someone tampered with one of the dishes at the potluck buffet.   As Goldy comes to terms with her friend's death, she discovers that Holly was in financial trouble, but she can't see how that would make anyone want to kill her.  Then Goldy falls into a trap possibly meant for Holly and someone stabs Father Pete in the parish office.   How were Holly's secrets involved?  Between catering events (including Ophelia's unexpectedly eventful party), Goldy and Marla pour through old meeting notes and half-forgotten memories, bringing  together what appear to be separate plots into one satisfying mystery.

My only problem with the book is that I'm afraid it's the last in the series.  The final chapter feels like a Happily Ever After coda.  Davidson hasn't so completely tied up the loose ends that she can't return to the series, but I suspect that she's at the end of a contract and she wanted give readers a resolution in case the series has ended.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients

Ben Goldacre's follow-up to Bad Science focuses on how the pharmaceutical industry manipulates doctors and patients.  Most people may realize that drug companies design and fund much of the medical research done today (who else would you expect to fund registration trials?), but probably don't know that the results are, if not actively manipulated, disseminated (through publication bias towards positive results) in a way that favors the sponsors.  Additionally, once drugs are approved (shown to be safe and more effective than nothing), there's little to no research to show whether they're safer and/or more effective than the current treatments on the market.  Finally, there's promotion - drugs are advertised to patients ("medicalizing" issues which may or may not be a problem and inducing them to ask for specific name-brand drugs) and to doctors (who understandably appreciate the convenience industry-sponsored CMEs provide, allowing them to get their credits and cut through the stacks of articles published each month).

As anyone who's read the business section knows, drug companies sometimes do more than selectively release data.  Some alter (or actively hide) studies so that ineffective and/or harmful drugs make it to the market.  Goldacre argues that the "cure" for this is the same as the "cure" for the less explicit problems. Larger, simpler trials (such as randomly assigning new patients to one of two similar and known to be effective treatments so we can know which one is better), more research from independent (mostly governmental) agencies, an end to drug advertising, and most of all transparency (in funding of studies and conferences, the disclosure of funding to doctors, and the release of the full data from drug studies) would go a long way to improving legitimate research and preventing the more nefarious actions that land pharmaceutical companies on the front page.

Danger to Elizabeth

When I read The Young Elizabeth, I didn't realize it was part of a quartet (one of the disadvantages of shopping at Daedalus).  Two years later, I've found and read the second in the series, and I'm surprised at how Elizabeth is almost a minor character in Danger to Elizabeth.  Much of this volume focuses on the religiously tinged political battles in her kingdom, with the implication that Elizabeth, while a Protestant, really didn't care what people believed so long as they treated her as the ultimate authority on earth.  The position of English Catholics stood out here.  Unlike the 1998 movie Elizabeth, 1560s England was not quite crawling with assassins and murders.  There were attempts to reestablish Catholicism, but at least as Plowden tells it, they were more political and less bloody than in the inaccurate but entertaining film.  For the most part, Catholics with the means to pay fines were allowed to practice with minor harassment (unless they involved themselves in political intrigues) and the general citizenry didn't seem to care much one way or the other.  Anglicanism wasn't that much different from Catholicism, and the people who'd experienced contradictory fanaticism from the two preceding probably appreciated Elizabeth's more nuanced views.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A Plague on Both Your Houses

I read a lot of mysteries - they make up more than half of my reading and most of my fiction reading.  I also re-read some of them, which probably sounds odd to others.  If you know who "dunnit" there's no reason to read it again, right?  Not really.  I enjoy trying to solve the puzzle, but if the only thing the book has going for it is a good puzzle, it's barely worth reading the first time.  A mystery novel is first and foremost a novel, and therefore needs to be well written, with vivid descriptions and interesting characters.  And sometimes, after 15 years, I may forget the killer's identity and motive.

Susanna Gregory's A Plague on Both Your Houses introduced Matthew Bartholomew, professor of medicine at Michaelhouse College, Cambridge.  I've now known Matthew for 15 years (10 in his timeline), and it was interesting to see how he's changed in that time.  He was fairly new to the University in 1348, somewhat unsure of the politics, and in love with his roommate's sister.  Overall, he seemed a bit, innocent, perhaps?  Matthew is not a cynical character, but he seemed a bit less accustomed to the backstabbing (literal and figurative) so common to both town and gown. Matthew's two closest friends, his book bearer Cynric and theology instructor Brother Michael have also changed over time.  The Cynric of 1348 is a vaguely drawn character, little more than a shadowy figure who appears when most needed and not the trusted and perceptive man with a sense of humor I encountered in later books.  Brother Michael underwent an even greater transformation - through most of the book, Matthew didn't know whether he could trust his gluttonous colleague who had not yet revealed his background as a courtier.  Now that I've reminded myself of who these characters were, I want to re-read the entire series and once again watch their growth.

As I read, also I discovered I'd forgotten as much of the plot of A Plague on Both Your Houses as I had of the characters' earlier personae.  I remembered that the plague came to Cambridge, and that Matthew contracted it and recovered with the help of one of his students, and that he was informally engaged to his roommate's sister.  I'd forgotten that the book started with the death of Michaelhouse's master, and that Sir John had been murdered.  Michaelhouse's new head is the vain and bombastic Wilson, and during his installation, someone murders another Michaelhouse member.  Matthew begins his investigation, but is soon interrupted by the spread of the plague.  Somehow, through his exhaustion and frustration, he manages to stumble onto the plot at the root of the murders and, with help from an unexpected person, solves the mystery.

I don't know if this is intentional, but Gregory brings up an immunological issue.  Michaelhouse's laundress Agatha claims to be immune to the plague, and she appears to be right.  Brother Michael also avoids developing the disease, despite multiple exposures.  HIV researchers have found that some people are strongly resistant to the virus, and that the mutation that protects them from HIV may have protected their ancestors form the plague.  I hadn't heard that when I first read this book (maybe the theory hadn't even been known outside of professional circles), so it really stood out when Michael mused why he seemed to be immune.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Why Didn't They Ask Evans? (The Boomerang Clue)

In her Autobiography, Agatha Christie said that her adventure novels, such as The Secret Adversary were easy and fun to write.  Why Didn't They Ask Evans fits this model - it's a quick, lighthearted novel and a week after finishing it, I'd forgotten much of the plot.  Bobby Jones (not that one) and the local doctor hear a scream during a round of golf.  They find a man lying unconscious, having apparently fallen off a cliff.  Dr. Thomas goes for help while Bobby stays with the man who gains consciousness only long enough to say, "Why didn't they ask Evans?"  At the inquest, a Mrs. Cayman identifies the body as that of her brother, but Bobby can't believe that this coarse woman is the girl whose photograph the victim kept in his pocket.  He discusses this with his childhood friend Lady Frances (a/k/a Frankie) and she hatches a plot to discover who the man really is - and, perhaps discover Evans's identity as well.  As I said above, I've already forgotten the identities of both the killer and the victim, but Bobby and Frankie are lively characters and Evans's identity is an amusing twist.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Coming Back

Sharon McCone spent most of her last appearance, Locked In, unable to move or speak after being shot in an apparent robbery.  Coming Back picks up six months later.  Sharon is weak and easily tired, but back to work and chafing against the coddling she's getting from her employees and her husband.  Left with few responsibilities in the office, it's natural that she would take on the odd disappearance of one of her friends from rehab.

When Piper Quinn missed nearly a week of PT, Sharon decided to check up on her.  She saw Piper, apparently drugged and in the care of someone claiming to be Piper's aunt.  But the aunt didn't exist, and when Sharon returned to the apartment, it had been emptied, cleaned and repainted  She called her main operative, Adah Joslin, to follow up, and leaves to follow another lead.   Several hours later, when Adah's partner Craig (also a McCone investigator) realizes that Adah is missing and probably kidnapped, he calls an emergency meeting and the team set out to find Adah - and Piper.  But who would want to kidnap a web designer disabled by a hit-and-run driver?  The solution involves a little too much conspiracy for my taste, but it was well constructed and supported, and I figured it out as it was revealed.

Muller used a multi-narrator technique with Locked In and uses it again here.  The shifting narrators (Sharon, Adah, Craig, Sharon's husband Hy Ripinsky, her nephew/employee Mick Savage, and her friend and office manager Ted Smalley) keep the pace quick by minimizing the exposition.  They also allow us to know these characters more fully than if we'd only seen them through Sharon's eyes.  There's a lot of introspection between, even during, the action scenes and it makes for an interesting novel as well as the literary equivalent of an action movie.  I read Coming Back in a single day, and would have read it in a single sitting if I didn't have to go to work.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Agatha Christie: An Autobiography

Agatha Christie: An Autobiography is more of a rambling memoir than a traditional autobiography, and more enjoyable because of that.  A more serious autobiography would probably focus on Christie's career, but the less directed format allowed her to focus on her personal life, and particularly her childhood.  Agatha Miller was born into the last days of a world Jane Austen would recognize, where gentlemen did not earn a living despite their declining investments and a girl might be raised entirely by a nanny and never have a day of formal education and a charming ne'er do well of an older brother might find an acceptable place in the officer corps on his connections.  She looks nostalgically on those times, but as a 21st Century great-granddaughter of a woman "in service," her comments on servants (on one hand, they were professionals; on the other they knew their place and were happier because of it) strike me as a bit odd.  It was an idyllic life, until her father's death left the family in financial straights.  Even then, Agatha seems to have had a "proper" adolescence and debut, traveling to lower-cost resorts where it was possible to live on less than the income from renting out one's home.  She had a few romances before meeting Archie Christie, married and worked in a hospital dispensary during WWI, had a daughter, and began her writing career.

I wonder how hard it was for Christie to discuss her first marriage.  It felt like she was trying to be fair to Archie, but he comes across as a bit self-centered and unreliable.  They were in love, and they went on a year-long trip around the world, but there's a nagging idea that he's going to let her down.  We know that happened - he left her for Nancy Neale while Agatha was mourning her mother's death and single-handedly clearing out her family home, and that led to Agatha's famous disappearance (which she doesn't mention).  Still, I question how reliable of a narrator she is for this part of her life.

Or for any part of her life, really.  Is any memoirist, particularly one who is so vivid of a writer, giving a truly unbiased view of her life?  Another example involves her second marriage to Max Mallowan.  They met when she was invited to visit an archaeological dig; Max was expedition leader Leonard Wooley's protege.  She chronicled their friendship and then romance through a series of trips, but with a fuzzy timeline and leaves the impression that he fell in love immediately and she had no clue.  Once married to Max, she accompanied him on his archaeological digs until WWII when he entered the Army and she once again worked in a hospital dispensary.

Christie wrote her memoir between 1955 an 1965, but it essentially ends before she began writing it, and only casually discusses her career.  Except for the year following the breakup of her first marriage, she apparently found writing easy.  All she needed was a typewriter, a good table, and a few hours of privacy to produce her yearly novels, and when she wanted money for a home improvement or a new car, she'd just sit down and write a short story and send it to a magazine for publication.  She almost dismisses her prolific WWII output by saying that there wasn't much else to do - Max was overseas, her daughter was in Walse, her friends were scattered, and there wasn't much nightlife - and that she wrote two books simultaneously so if she became blocked on one, she could work on the other.  I'd like to read a straight biography of Agatha Christie, particularly one that analyzed her professional life  I don't think, though, that such a book, no matter how informative, would be quite as much fun as her own memoir.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Mind's Eye

I'm not a ditz - my brain is miswired!

We see with our minds, not really our eyes.  The eyes are just receivers, not interpreters.  That's the basis of Oliver Sacks's The Mind's Eye.  People with apparently normal eyes who do not see (or stop seeing) the world as the rest of us do.  A concert pianist suddenly becomes unable to sight-read music during a concert, a man's morning newspaper appears to be written in a foreign alphabet - neurological oddities appearing through vision and changing the lives of the patients.  Sacks doesn't explain how these oddities happen (there is no explanation), but describes how the two, and a woman left aphasic by a stroke, compensate for their defects with varying degrees of success.  They demonstrate the plasticity of the brain.  

Stereo Sue's story is odder.  We're used to people losing an ability and then coping, but Sue grew up with no depth perception.  In her 50s, she began to see depth - not well or consistently at first, but eventually she developed consistent stereo vision.  You don't miss what you never knew, and Sue had been satisfied with the flattened universe in which she lived.  Seeing bioluminescent plankton in 3-D for the first time, though, she realized what she'd missed.

I've read most of Sacks's books, and they've become more personal in the last decade.  One long chapter detailed his treatment for optical cancer and the related complications - a chapter which I skimmed, thanks to my extreme squeamishness about anything to do with the eye.  He also discusses his prosopagnosia - face blindness.  It's severe enough that he doesn't always recognize reflections of himself, but until a discussion with his brother (also face blind), it was his "normal" and not something he missed.  Sacks then discussed his total lack of a sense of direction, and hypothesized that the two might be related.  

That's when I stopped feeling like a ditz.  My sense of direction is legendarily bad.  Friends joked about it two years before I was even old enough to drive - and my mom jokes that even watching The Amazing Race on TV could be dangerous for me.  I get lost in office buildings and disoriented in malls that bend.  When I went to a friend's mother's funeral (coincidentally the day before I started reading The Mind's Eye), my mother got up at 6 am on a Sunday to act as my navigator, because otherwise I wouldn't find Long Island let alone the funeral parlor.  I'm also not very good putting names to faces - I recognize people by their gait or voice, but when a fellow commuter greets me in the supermarket, it takes me a bit to realize I know them.  I've spent decades thinking I'm inattentive or just an airhead, but instead, I'm probably miswired.  In an odd way, it's comforting to know that, and it even allowed me to relax a bit on my latest road trip - with my mom, of course, as navigator.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Body Work

I guess it's easy to take long-running series for granted.  I used to buy Sara Paretsky's books (and Sue Grafton's and Marcia Muller's) the moment they were available in paperback.  I've never put them on probation and always look forward to their books, but a combination of a busier life, more series to read, and a drift towards non-fiction has led me to fall behind.  Body Work came out in paperback three years ago, but I bought it at The Book Corner this past March.  Paretsky's previous book, Hardball, was her best in at least a decade so I'm surprised it took me so long.

Hardball wasn't linear, and neither is Body Work, although the timeline isn't quite as twisted.  Vic is at the hot new club where a performance artist who invites audience members to draw on her naked body is the usual headliner.  Most nights, a young woman paints the embellished face of another woman on the Body Artist's back, until one night she draws the attention and ire of a young veteran.  After the performance, someone shoots the young woman and she dies in Vic's arms.  The veteran, a young man who enlisted out of patriotism and left the army with PTSD, is a natural suspect and he's found near death from an overdose.  Did he kill her - and why?  Or was he framed?

Well, it would be a very short novel if Chad Vishneski were the killer, so it's not a spoiler to say he's just another victim.  Chad's parents hire Vic to find out if he did kill Nadia Guzman, and she begins to investigate both the victim and the accused.  The link between the two turns out to be Nadia's older sister Alexandra, a civilian contractor who'd died in Iraq and whose time in Baghdad overlapped with Chad's.  This leads Vic to a mix of corporate corruption, money laundering, and drug dealing which eventually ends in the Body Artist's final performance.

Paretsky has put perhaps a bit too much plot into this installment, but she ties it up well.  She's also brought back Vic's cousin Petra, who again acts as the catalyst for Vic's involvement in the case but is otherwise a bit of an annoying brat.  It's a better-than-average installment in a good series, but maybe a bit of a letdown after Hardball.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Murder at the Vicarage

I first read The Murder at the Vicarage 30 or so years ago, but I don't think I've read it since.  It's been 28 years since I saw a high school production of the play.  As with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, I remembered only bits of the story but the memories that came back were more personal than plot related.  I remember the pink blood on the "victim's" white shirt and joking with my friends Michelle and Vicky (the stage managers for the show) afterwards, even what I was wearing.  I don't remember the plot.

Maybe it's because the plot is more mechanical than distinctive.  Someone calls vicar Leonard Clement away on a fake call for last rites; he returns home to find Colonel Protheroe dead in the vicarage study.  There are half a dozen or so likely suspects (including the vicar who'd tactlessly expressed how little his overbearing parishioner would be missed after death), and of course those with the strongest motives have the strongest alibis.  Those alibis are no match for Miss Marple's logic, though.  She's actually a minor character (the book is written from the vicar's POV), the most self-aware of a Greek chorus of gossipy old ladies who annoy the vicar's much younger wife.  In her first outing, she's not quite the sweet natured old lady who sees parallels between every crime, big or small, and a long-ago event in St. Mary Mead.  She's a bit cattier, and rather than solving the mystery on her own, she directs the vicar towards the solution.  I recently read Christie's autobiography and she claims that The Murder at the Vicarage had "too much plot."  She's right, but it's still a worthy introduction for the iconic character.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Catherine of Aragon: Henry's Spanish Queen

Catherine of Aragon always seems to be seen in reflection - Henry VIII's first wife, Mary Tudor's mother, Charles V's aunt, and the stubborn and deeply religious cause of the English Reformation.  She was more, though - she'd have to be, to survive more time as Henry's Queen than her five successors combined.  She was deeply devout, and brilliant, and politically aware, yet because she was a woman, she had to rely on others in her attempt to prove the validity of her marriage.

The story of Catherine's life is well known, and while Tremlett portrays it well, the facts are too well known for any revelations.  The daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, who merged his minor kingdom with her more powerful domain to form the unified Spain that still exists, Catherine's early years were spent as a pawn on the marriage market.  Betrothed to Arthur, Henry VII's oldest son, she traveled to England as a pre-teen to be groomed for her eventual role.  She married Arthur, he died a few months later, and after three years in the limbo of widowhood, she married Arthur's younger brother Henry.  She failed to produce a surviving son, and after Henry took that as a sign that their marriage was cursed, spent the rest of her life trying to maintain her position.

I found Tremlett's insights into Catherine's personality more interesting.  Brilliant and with a flair for diplomacy, she acted as Henry's ambassador and stand in at various points in their marriage.  In fact, she was probably better at running England than her husband - both were intelligent and educated, but Henry, even before the head injury which may have been responsible for his later tyranny, didn't have the attention span or personality for ruling.  Perhaps this brilliance is why the Pope repeatedly postponed deciding on the validity of her marriage, or perhaps that brilliance led to the arrogance which kept her from accepting a settlement.

Catherine's faith, which sustained her through her trials, may have also been their partial cause.  She was from the medieval world which saw mortification of the flesh as necessary for eternal salvation and frequently fasted to the point of starvation, particularly during the three years between Arthur's death and her marriage to Henry.  The teenage Catherine spent those years wondering if she was going to be returned to Spain, married to her father-in-law, sent to a convent, or returned to the marriage market; it's not hard for modern eyes to see her faithful fasting as a way to control something in her life.  Anorexia, or some other eating disorder, could partially explain her pregnancy troubles.

That leads us to the big question - did Arthur and Catherine consummate their marriage?  Tremlett isn't sure.  Would such a devout woman fight so hard for a lie, or did the realization that she would lose everything overrule her ethics?  The announcement of her first pregnancy with Henry provides evidence for both sides of the argument.  The country was eager for an heir, so Henry and Catherine announced her pregnancy - several months before she was, in fact, pregnant.  On one side, this shows a level of comfort with private lies for political means, but Tremlett also discusses the possibility that neither Catherine nor Henry was fully aware of how conception worked.  One would think that if she'd consummated her several-month marriage to Arthur, someone would have provided her with some information.  The mystery remains.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Come Home

Come Home could benefit from some tartness.  Lisa Scottoline doesn't dwell in the same sub-genre as Laura Lippman but her legal thrillers have always had a bit of South Philly girlfriend addy-tood.  This novel, however, features a Main Line pediatrician and a Lifetime Movie tone.  I love seeing authors stretch, and (although it may surprise some to hear me say this), I don't assume that "chick lit" is bad.  Come Home, however, is, well, not very good chick-lit.  Three years after her divorce, Jill Farrow opens the door on a rainy night to find her former stepdaughter, distraught over her father's death.  Abby is convinced her father was murdered, the police are not.  Sounds like the perfect Scottoline set-up right?  Well, the solution turns on a rather dull (and accurately portrayed) bit of regulatory law, and Scottoline does manage to make that interesting.  Where she fails in in her usual strength - character.  As I mentioned last year, Scottoline's longest running character, Judy Carrier and Mary DiNunzio feel so real that I not only know them, I have been either one - or both - of them.  Jill Farrow, her fiancé, her daughter and former stepdaughters - none of them feel real.  They're the sort of flat characters that trap talented actresses in RomCom Purgatory, cute and earnest and ultimately unbelievable.  Think Twice reminded me how much I like Lisa Scottoline's Rosato & Associates books.  Come Home has taught me to think twice if Scottoline's protagonist isn't a lawyer.

Hardly Knew Her

Laura Lippman calls her genre "tart noir" and the title fits her short story collection, Hardly Knew Her.    The stories are dark, and the women, although firmly planted in the 2010s, are acidly drawn successors to the sort of woman played by Ida Lupino and Barbara Stanwick.  Lippman devotes the first two thirds of the collection to short stories featuring desperate women - a gambler's teenage daughter, an elderly woman denying her age, a mistress whose lover falls back in love with his wife, a babysitter with a dilemma - and sharp but believable plot twists.  Then there are three stories featuring Tess Monaghan, set before Tess's retirement in The Girl in the Green Raincoat, two cases and a "profile" of the accidental detective which foreshadows the earlier-written novella.  Finally, there's "Scratch a Woman" - too long for a short story, not quite a novella.  It's the story of a suburban call girl and her PTA-mom half sister, as tart and as twisted as the stories that precede it, and with perhaps the most surprising ending of all…or maybe not.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Pale Companion

I pulled The Pale Companion off my shelf as I was nearing the end of my annual book diet.  I read an earlier (the first?) book in the series nearly a decade ago and remember it as enjoyable but not particularly gripping.  That's also my assessment of The Pale Companion; a decent mystery but not one that left me desperate to hunt down the rest of the out-of-print series.

The Chamberlain's Men are traveling to an estate near Salisbury where they will perform "A Midsummer Night's Dream" the night before the ceremony.  Along the way, company member Nick Revill ends up on the wrong end of a riot and meets local magistrate Adam Flemming whose daughter Kate tends to Nick's bruises.  Due to the Theory of the Conservation of Characters, we know that the Flemmings will be guests at the wedding, and that (since this is a mystery), Adam Flemming will be charged with solving it.  And we are not disappointed - we even get a bonus murder.  The first death is that of Robin, a feral woodsman found hanging from a tree.  His murder has not been solved when, the night after the performance, someone kills Lord Elcombe with a gnomon.  His elder son, Henry (the groom to be) appears to have killed him, but has he?  Phillip Gooden creates a good puzzle, giving strong motives to the innocent and supporting his slightly improbably conclusion.  I'll give The Pale Companion a middling grade - worth reading, but perhaps not worth searching for.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Dance of Death

Roger the Chapman began solving mysteries at the behest of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and Kate Sedley has framed her novels as the memoirs of an old man countering the then-current Tudor propaganda against his occasional patron.  Sedley - and Roger - have reached 1482, a year before Richard III became king and three years before he died in battle.  Perhaps that means she's going to wind down the series, or maybe Roger will return to solving ordinary, non-political mysteries.

I hope it's the latter.  The Dance of Death is the second consecutive (and third of the last four) Roger the Chapman novel to involve Richard and political intrigue.  It's the best of those three, but I miss Roger's life in Bristol with Adela and their children.  Roger does as well, which is why Richard's spymaster Timothy Plummer intercepts Roger's message to his family to force Roger to perform one more mission.   Actually, he's on two separate missions, the first posing as the husband of a half-french woman whose cousin has information regarding the French King's attempts to void the engagement between the Dauphin and Elizabeth of York.  The second verges on treason; Richard has asked him to find evidence that Edward IV is illegitimate and that their mother was unfaithful.  Disguised as a wealthy merchant and his wife, they travel to France accompanied by one of Richard's men and Phillip Lamprey, an old friend of Roger's.

Sedley devotes most of The Dance of Death to the journey from London to Paris, seemingly followed by an unhappily married couple, a jeweler, and a flirtatious courtier and leaves the mystery to the final few pages.  Maybe that's why she got me - the killer's identity surprised me, even though I'd seen all the clues.  After a relatively disappointing installment, Sedley produced a satisfying and enjoyable mystery.  Unfortunately, I may have to miss the next few installments.  I hadn't ordered from amazon.co.uk in a few years and during that time, her publisher apparently shrank the print runs in favor of ebooks which are not available in the US.  My next trip to London may include scouring the city for used book store (or maybe curling up in a library, devouring the two books between The Dance of Death and the one I just ordered).

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing

I like Peter Ustinov's portrayal of Hercule Poirot.  It's not quite accurate, but it's how I picture him.  The  real Poirot (and Poirot as played by David Suchet) is a bit too unreal and mannered to solve crimes.  Ustinov gave the impression that Poirot's fussiness was at least partially an act so that witnesses - and criminals - would underestimate him, say too much, and allow him to solve the mystery.

Vish Puri, the Delhi-based private detective who solves The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing reminds me a bit of Poirot.  He's a bit younger than Poirot, a happily married family man, and less mannered, but there's a sense that he lets people underestimate him and then turns to his advantage.  Plus, he never misses a meal - or a snack, even when trying to solve the apparently supernatural death of India's #1 debunker.  Dr. Jha is the Guru Buster, part Uri Geller, part MythBuster, exposing both New Age twaddle and Indian televangelists preaching a Hindi version of the Prosperity Gospel.  One day, during his weekly Laughing Club meeting, he and the rest of the group are overcome with uncontrollable laughter.  They're paralyzed by humor, and unable to act when a god appears and fatally stabs Dr. Jha.

Vish Puri reads about the Guru Buster's death and decides to investigate.  Looking both at the Laughing Club members and the charlatans Dr. Jha had exposed, Puri solves both Dr. Jha's murder and the apparently unrelated death of a young woman at a Swami's compound.  Hall does something interesting here, writing parallel plots which may or may not be related.  He also allows Puri's operatives, particularly Facecream, the young woman who infiltrates the Swami's compound, to be competent and interesting, not just flunkies following the boss's orders.

The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing isn't just a satisfying mystery, it's also an enjoyable domestic novel.  Puri's wife Rumpi is preparing for their daughter's baby shower, Puri's brother-in-law shows up with yet another get-rich-quick scheme, and when armed robbers disrupt the kitty party (a party where Ladies Who Lunch pool money for a monthly drawing) attended by Rumpi and Puri's mother, Mummy-ji decides to solve the crime.  Hall weaves these domestic scenes (and a lot of food - this probably isn't a book to read while hungry) around the main mystery, creating a truly enjoyable book.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Packing for Mars

I've never had any desire to go into space.  That's not to say I'm not fascinated by space exploration.  The later moon missions are among my earliest memories, and watching Judith Resnik let her hair loose  in microgravity made me, then a 15-year-old geek with waist-length hair, look seriously at Carnegie Mellon.  Even back then, though, I had the idea that space exploration wasn't for me.  Multiple people in close quarters, bad food, no privacy, and nowhere to get away.  When my co-workers get on my nerves, I can walk around the corner for coffee.  In space, there is no Wawa.

Packing for Mars tells me I was right.  Imagine the worse office job you've ever had.  Highly structured, little autonomy, lots of stress, no privacy, and you have to be prepared for multiple emergencies.  Now imagine that you're doing this while stuck in a two-room apartment with several other people for six months - and it smells like a combination of new car and old sweat socks, with a possible latrine under note.  Oh, and there's about a 70% chance of serious motion sickness - so if you're OK, your co-workers are probably throwing up.

Living in space is difficult, but, as Mary Roach explains, getting into space is even harder.  Packing for Mars starts with a visit to the Japanese space agency, where prospective astronauts have their return lunch trays photographed and inspected by psychologists and spend their days folding origami cranes and demonstrating their cocktail-party tricks.  Odd as these tasks are, they do make sense - living in space involves patience, attention to detail, and a certain lack of embarrassment, as well as an ability to keep things in perspective.  One astronaut tells Mary that his contribution to building the ISS was to "personally tighten six bolts" - which translates to two years of higher education for each bolt.  The fearless pilots of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions may have had technical backgrounds, but they were there as explorers and daredevils.  Most of today's astronauts are Geeks in Space, engineers and scientists who do 99% of their work firmly on the ground.

Most of the prep work is done on the ground as well, some of it by scientists, some by less technically skilled people.  Roach doesn't shy away from discussing bodily functions (and has even written entire books on them), so it's not surprising that she devotes several chapters to bathing, toileting, and the lack of facilities for either.  Space hygiene leaves a lot to be desired, and the men who spent a week trapped in a subcompact car while never changing their underwear needed a special kind of bravery.  So did the college students who did the prep work for those missions.  I can just imagine these guys signing up for a paid experiment (I did a few in college - 30-45 minutes of staring at a screen and pushing a button meant pizza money courtesy of the psychology department), thinking it was easy money and then discovering that they'd have to spend 14 days without bathing or changing their clothing, while scientists (undoubtedly the ones lowest in seniority) sniffed their armpits and groins to rate and graph their odor.  At least they didn't have to test the various waste containment systems, one of which involved a bag with a pocket for fingertip assistance, and a tube of antiseptic so that the bag didn't build up gases and explode.  Today's voluntary tests are a bit easier (they involve lying in bed for three months, to see how badly bone and muscle degrade without use), but tedious and require the subject to eat hospital food.  At least the meals aren't designed by veterinarians (as the early space meals were).

It's not all sweat and stink, though.  Roach also got to experience weightlessness on a parabolic flight, visited the Russian space museum (curated by a cosmonaut who staffed Mir - and whose desk included a built in bar), and spent time on a beautiful and remote island in northern Canada which simulates the lunar surface.  In this fantastic and beautiful wasteland, she includes an oddly touching moment.  Roach appreciates the ridiculousness and the wonder of space, but never loses touch with the professionalism and bravery of the men and women she's interviewing.  Like the IgNobel prizes, Packing for Mars makes you laugh, and then makes you think.

Dangerous to Know

Tasha Alexander's books are best read somewhere warm and sunny, preferably while drinking a beverage which includes a little umbrella.  That's not to say they can't be enjoyed while commuting on a snow-delayed bus.  It's just that while sitting in traffic, cold and surrounded by grumpy people, Emily's adventures provided too much contrast to my situation.

Still recovering from the injuries sustained at the end of Tears of Pearl and chafing under her mother-in-law's disapproving eye, Lady Emily finds solace in long horseback rides.  At least, that is, until she comes across the mutilated body of a young woman.  The local police think that it's the work of Jack the Ripper; Emily's husband Colin Hargraves isn't so sure.  With the help of Emily's friend Cecile du Lac (and Sebastien Capet, the burglar/pretender to the French throne), Emily and Colin discover that the dead woman was a distant cousin to Mrs. Hargraves's odd neighbors and had escaped from a mental asylum.  I spent the last third of the book convinced that I'd figured out the killer, and the motive - only to find out that I was completely wrong.  On a mystery level, it's the best Lady Emily book since the first, and after a book featuring none of Emily's friends, I was happy to see Cecile, but I miss Ivy, Margaret, and Jeremy, and even Emily's overbearing mother.  I don't have the next installment yet, but I hope it returns Emily to London where she (and we) will once again spend time with them.

Double Indemnity

The Postman Always Rings Twice disappointed me.  On a technical level, it deserves its reputation as a noir classic, but it left me cold.  Double Indemnity lived up to my expectations.  The characters were no more likable, but they were more compelling, perhaps because they inhabited a more complex plot.  Walter Huff stops by a client's house to renew his car insurance policy.  Mr. Nirdlinger isn't home, but Mrs. Nirdlinger is, and she asks about taking out an accident policy on her husband.  Huff knows what this means, but as he begins an affair with Phyllis Nirdlinger, he plans the perfect "accidental" murder of her husband.  

And it works - until Phyllis's stepdaughter Lola points tells Huff that her mother died in Phyllis's care.  Huff begins to question his accomplice, but the plan's going well, right?  Then Huff discovers that Phyllis is having an affair with Lola's boyfriend, and a trap springs on the wrong person.  Or does it?  Like a good noir, "double-crossing" doesn't even begin to describe the plot twists, and the ending foreshadows Jim Thompson's The Getaway.  At about 150 pages, Double Indemnity can be a one sitting read, and is definitely worth the time.  Now, I just need to see the movie...

Thursday, February 13, 2014

As Easy as Pi

I had a Pale and Geeky Christmas - my cousin gave me a sonic screwdriver, friends gave me a Doctor Who miscellany, and my parents gave me a Doctor Who t-shirt, a puzzle book, and four very geeky books.  One was As Easy as Pi, a volume of number trivia.  It's a perfect commute book, with essays ranging from a paragraph to a few pages on number-related topics.  From explaining where numerical phrases came from (or may have come from) to why buses seem to come in threes, it's diverting and unchallenging.  Just the thing to read during snow-lengthened commutes.

The Rough Collier

Several years ago, I read a really bad mystery.   The title was a clear attempt to cash in on a then-bestseller, the plot was ridiculous, the main character had too many "colorful" attributes (grad student AND bike messenger AND nude model for art classes AND lost her virginity to her professor-mother's colleague in a book-lined study - and all this by page 10), and the writing style was inappropriately flowery.  It was awful, but it was fun to read.

The Rough Collier is a better-written book, but less memorable and less fun.  Peat diggers find a preserved body, assume it's a recently disappeared local man, and a courtier visiting his mother deduces that it's not.  So what happened to the missing man?  It turns out he was murdered, but I never got interested enough in the characters to care how or by whom.   The Rough Collier isn't a bad book, but it's mediocre and dull.  I'm not going to look for any other books in the series, and I'm donating it to the Book Corner.

Simplexity: Why Simple Thing Become Complex (and How Complex Things Can Be Made Simple)

KISS - Keep It Simple, Stupid

My office mate is a big fan of simplification.  He can take any issue, boil it down to a single yes-or-no question, and declare victory when the person with whom he's arguing cannot give a 100% positive answer.  He should probably read Sipmplexity, but I doubt he ever will.  Jeffrey Kruger has an interesting premise - everything exists on a bell curve, between complete chaos and complete order, and the sweet spot is in the middle.  Every system needs enough flexibility to accommodate the variations from the norm, but not so much so that predictability falls too low.  Human perception complicates matters - we place too much value on the rare event (like plane crashes) because they stand out and not enough on common events (like car crashes) because they fade into the background.  Kruger applies the rules of simplexity to several situations, from language acquisition to sports scores and from consumer electronics to why low paid jobs aren't actually low skilled.  I don't know (and it may be impossible to know) how accurate his conclusions are, but it's an interesting book.

The Upleasentness at the Bellona Club

Dorothy Sayers is one of the masters of the classic, Golden Age mystery, and The Unpleasentness at the Bellona Club is, on one level a typical example.  On Armistice Day, General Fentiman's grandson finds him dead, in a comfy armchair at the Bellona Club.  A few days later, General Fentiman's lawyer asks Lord Peter Wimsey (who was at the Bellona Club when the body was discovered) to unravel a problem.  The General had reconciled with his estranged sister hours before his death, and she had changed her will.  Lady Dormer had also died on November 11, and if she had predeceased her brother, he inherited the bulk of her estate (£12,000 would go to Lady Dormer's niece Ann), which would then pass to his grandson Robert, minus £2000 to his grandson George.  If Lady Dormer predeceased the General, Ann would inherit her estate, minus £7500 to each of General Fentiman's grandsons.

So far, it's all fairly straightforward, except the General's body was moved after death, throwing the time of death into question.  That, in turn, opens up the question of how he died - did his heart simply give out after the emotional meeting with his sister, or was he murdered?  And by whom?   George and Ann benefited if the General died before Lady Dormer, Robert if the General last, and all three inherited a substantial amount.  Lord Peter, of course, solves the mystery, and the murder's identity would have been a surprise if I hadn't read the book twice before and seen the BBC adaptation half a dozen times.

I said that this is a classic mystery on one level, and it is.  On another level, it's a fairly early depiction of PTSD.  Most of Sayers's novels refer to Lord Peter's shell shock, and he has a breakdown at the end of Whose Body.  Lord Peter, has money and position which help provide coping mechanisms.  George Fentiman's situation seems calculated to make his shell shock worse.  He's a "gentleman" who now has to work, but keeps losing jobs because of his condition, and he's living in an era when PTSD is seen as a sign of weakness, not as an illness.  Modern readers are used to a little bit of social commentary in genre fiction, but I don't think it was quite so common 90 years ago.  This is why I re-read mysteries, particularly classics.  The second or third time around, I don't just see the puzzle but also the framework, and gain insights into the world as it was.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City opens on the Olympic, where Daniel Hudson Burnham, one of the architects of the 1893 Great Exposition in Chicago decides to send a message to his friend Frank Millet who's crossing the Atlantic in the opposite direction, on the RMS Titanic.  Eric Larson presumes that while waiting word of his friend's survival, Burnham's thoughts drifted back to their great project, the 1893 Great Exposition in Chicago.  One of Chicago's most innovative architects and the man who figured out how to build skyscrapers on Chicago's soft soil, the Exposition committee chose Burnham to oversee the construction and operation of the site, and Larson devotes about half the book to the troubled construction and ultimately successful execution of Chicago's grand step onto the world stage. 

Larson does a good job of describing the difficulties, both political and weather-related, which plagued the construction of what came to be known as the White City, and his description of the Exposition communicated the sense of awe visitors must have felt when they saw the first ever Ferris wheel and the gorgeous buildings filled with curiosities.  He leavens this sense of awe with creepy but engrossing chapters about H. H. Holmes, a pharmacist and landlord whose wives, secretaries, and business associates seem to disappear.  Holmes has an explanation for everything - they went back to their families, or ran away to marry, or followed another business opportunity.  Sure, his apartment building had odd, soundproofed rooms, and maybe the gas jets looked a bit odd, but no one put anything together.

No one, that is, until 1895 when Frank Geyer, a Philadelphia detective investigated a case of insurance fraud.  H. H. Holmes had taken out insurance policies on his business partner Benjamin Perzel, who disappeared soon afterward.  Holmes then took Perzel's children on a trip from which they never returned.  This last section reads like a tightly written police procedural, with solid detective work and a few lucky breaks.  Geyer captured America's first known serial killer.