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 fiancĂ©.  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."