Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Night Searchers

Marcia Muller hasn't slumped in her nearly 40-year Sharon McCone series, but not all of her novels are quite up to the same level.  I enjoyed The Night Searchers, but it doesn't quite live up to the most recent installments.  Maybe that's because I've somehow missed its immediate predecessor, but it also covers a transition period for Sharon and that lurked in the background throughout the book.

Sharon's current clients are a young couple, Camilla and Jay Givens.  He's a successful accountant; she's a vague woman who drifts through hobbies and jobs, and thinks that she saw a satanic ritual.  Her husband thinks she's crazy, but it that to his advantage?  Jay also belongs to a group called the Night Searchers who go on late-night treasure hunts.  Sharon and her nephew/employe Mick join them, stumble on a second death, and this case eventually ties in with Sharon husband Hy's current case.  Overall, I found it entertaining but not particularly satisfying.  The mystery was decent (if tied up a bit too abruptly), and I always enjoy spending time with Sharon and her friends.  Worth reading, but mainly as part of the series.

Behind the Shattered Glass

The rich are eccentric where everyone else is merely strange.  Lady Emily's mother, however, has no tolerance for either.  This fact sets up some of the most entertaining scenes in Behind the Shattered Glass, Tasha Alexander's eighth mystery.  Lady Catherine Bromley, wife of an Earl and confidant of Queen Victoria, is *not* amused when her daughter's neighbor staggers across the threshold and dies.  It's just not what one expects when visiting your daughter, her husband Colin, and their infant twins at his family's country seat.  Colin has no choice but to investigate, and (to her mother's chagrin) enlist's Emily's help.

The Hargraveses barely knew the newly elevated Marquess of Montague when he had the gall to die upon their doorstep, but they were mildly acquainted with his cousin Matilda, heir to the title - or so she thinks.  It turns out that there's a missing heir, a young man who's the product of a shunned family line and who has spent his adult life as an explorer and adventurer.  Matilda asks Emily to prove that this *Rodney* person is not the product of a legitimate line, and anyone familiar with the screwball comedies of the 1930s should know that by the end of the book, it won't matter.  More seriously, Emily and Colin also investigate the late Marquess's background, finding him more and more unsavory with every discovery.  Technically a gentleman but no gentleman, he'd misused an Oxford friend and dallied with the vicar's daughter while forming an engagement to an American millionaire's daughter - and that's just what Colin and Emily discover in the first day or so of their investigation.

As she's done with most of her mysteries, Alexander includes a parallel narrative which eventually ties into the main plot.  Lily, an artistically and musically inclined housemaid, tells this part of the story, including backstairs squabbles and potentially important information about the night of the murder.  Lily also catches the attention of Colin's friend Simon, a Duke whose eccentricity includes treating servants like people.

Simon isn't the only person who's chafing at the restrictions of Victorian society.  Emily, as mentioned in A Crimson Warning has joined her mother-in-law in the suffrage movement.  It's a cause Colin can't bring himself to support but he, unlike his wife the Earl's daughter, believes that class distinctions should start falling.  120 years later, they both seem to have giant blind spots but for the time, they're quite progressive.  I liked how Alexander showed that the two can disagree while still gently pushing each other towards their own causes.  I wonder if she's going to take a more political turn in later episodes.  That could be very interesting.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

This Is Improbable Too!

Science can look silly - or even be silly.  Politicians love highlighting shrimp on treadmills and other apparently pointless scientific studies.  What they don't realize is that experiments that appear pointless on their face can be (and often are) applied to wider, more practical problems.  Marc Abrahams, editor of The Annals of Improbable Research and the creator of the IgNobel prizes looks at the issue from the other angle.  He looks for the odd or humorous side of legitimate scientific research (and he appreciates those who investigate questions no one asked).  Like its predecessor, This Is Improbable Too! makes a wonderful commute book.  Entertaining enough to grab your attention but structured so that it can easily be read in short blocks, it's like the IgNobel prizes.  It makes you laugh, then makes you think.


Even detectives can get conned.  Teddy Xanakis pulls a pretty good one on Kinsey Millhone early in X, and on top of it Teddy paid her with counterfeit $100 bills.  Following the events of W Is for Wasted, Kinsey is in a position to investigate a personal case without much hope of being paid, so she works the case to a generally satisfying end.

Teddy's con isn't the main plot, though.  X is mostly a direct sequel to W Is for Wasted, with Kinsey diving into a cold case left behind by Pete Wolinsky.  Pete's ethics were questionable at best, but Kinsey became friendly with his widow Ruth while solving Pete's last case (a case in which he claimed to be working with Kinsey), and ultimately his murder.  The IRS (or someone claiming to be from the IRS) claims that there's a problem with Pete's estate, so Ruth asks Kinsey to search the box of Pete's documents (marked with a large X) which Kinsey has under her desk.

Pete's files turn out to be from the case that ended the partnership between Benjamin Byrd and Morley Shine, the investigators under whom Kinsey apprenticed and with whom Pete occasionally worked.  Ned Lowe's wife apparently committed suicide and Pete's investigation cast doubt on the verdict.  Since she has no other active cases (and a financial cushion thanks to her inheritance), Kinsey picks up the cold case, solves it, and partially rehabilitates her colleague's reputation.

There are only two more books to come in the Kinsey Millhone series, and I'm going to miss them.  The last few have been among the best, and X didn't disappoint me.  Beside two strong mysteries, Grafton included a comic subplot involving Henry Pitts's interest in water-saving technology and his and Kinsey's strange new neighbors.  She's also bringing back characters from Kinsey's past.  Two of Kinsey's ex-lovers, Cheney Phillips and Robert Deitz, appeared in W is for Wasted, and Phillips plays a major part in X as well.  There's also a cameo by Kinsey's other ex, Jonah Robb, and a visit to her old friend Vera (now the mother of three kids under five and 8 months pregnant with twins).  With Kinsey's recent discovery of Millhone relatives and trust with her maternal-side family, it looks like Grafton is setting up a happy ending for her heroine.  I just hope it includes Henry Pitts.

The Black Book

The Black Book succeeds as a novel but fails as a mystery.  I didn't find any of the interlocking mysteries (the attack on his DS Brian Holmes, the murder of the chef at Holmes's favorite Elvis-themed restaurant, and the cold case surrounding a hotel fire) Rebus solved particularly satisfactory.  I found Rebus's personal life (he's crashing on the sofa of his own apartment because his girlfriend has kicked him out and he's sublet the apartment to students; then his estranged brother appears looking for a place to stay) to be more coherently plotted.  Despite its weaknesses, I enjoyed The Black Book, but I recommend it more as an installment in a series.  If you're reading books individually, you can probably skip this one.