Monday, May 30, 2016

Mad Hatter's Holiday

Peter Lovesy's fourth Sergent Cribb novel plays with the format a bit.  After three straightforward, slightly comic, Victorian police procedurals, Lovesy waits until the midpoint of Mad Hatter's Holiday to introduce Cribb and the faithful but not particularly bright Constable Thackery.  Instead, the novel starts from Albert Morcrop's point of view.  Morcrop is a telescope salesman who uses his beach holiday to turn his telescope on the passing crowd.  He becomes obsessed with Zena Prothero, a young woman married to a much older doctor.  A doctor with a son from a prior marriage and a habit of walking out with other women after sending his wife to bed with a sleeping potion.  When parts of a woman's body and Mrs. Prothero's coat are found buried on the beach, the local police suspect the worst and call Scotland Yard for help.  Cribb, of course, solves the murder with an appropriate number of twists and turns.  He solved it, but I didn't - a rarity, as is the short (220 pages) length.  Mad Hatter's Holiday is the best installment so far in Lovesy's entertainingly brisk historical mysteries.

A Spectacle of Corruption

I should have liked A Spectacle of Corruption much more than I did.  It's well written, protagonist Benjamin Weaver has an interesting backstory, and there's plenty of intrigue and action.  However, like A Conspiracy of Paper and The Coffee Trader, it left me cold.  Six months after the events of A Conspiracy of Paper, Benjamin finds himself convicted of murder.  He manages to escape and, acting mostly under an assumed identity, gets involved in the upcoming election while clearing his name.  The problem was, I just didn't care.  I had no doubt that Benjamin would clear his name, but also little interest in how he did it.  The political machinations of the Whigs and Tories appeal to me more in non-fiction than as the electoral backdrop to Weaver's story.  A Spectacle of Corruption is a good book, just not quite for me.

Galileo's Daughter

Galileo's Daughter started slowly for me.  The first hundred or so pages simply outline Galileo's work and family, and introduce us to his daughter Virginia.  Ineligible for marriage due to their illegitimacy, Virginia and her sister Livia, entered a convent of the Poor Clares as young teens, taking the names Maria Celeste and Arcangela respectively.  Marie Celeste was a bright woman who, in another century,  probably would have become a scientist in her own right.  Instead, she became her father's assistant, transcribing his books and helping manage his household from behind convent walls.  Sobel uses Marie Celeste's letters to her father (many of them reproduced here) to bring a woman with a theoretically limited life alive.  She was useful not just to her father but to her entire family and to the convent where she served at apothecary and was about to become the head administrator when she died at age 33.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Five Red Herrings

Thirty years lends perspective to characters.  I've read Five Read Herrings at twice and seen the cardboard-set BBC adaptation at least five times, but never thought of why Sandy Campbell was so unpleasant.  I never thought he deserved to be killed, but this time I found him to be more tragic than terrible.  The sort of person who's disliked because he's unlikable, but then overreacts and makes himself unbearable.  We've all known people like him, co-workers or classmates, and maybe, once we no longer have to deal with them, squirm a bit at memories of how we treated them.

Since Campbell was so despised, no one is particularly surprised when his accidental death turns out to be murder.  Six of his fellow artists - the killer and the five red herrings - are suspects, and Lord Peter and Bunter set out to solve the crime.  Here's where I had another revelation; Five Red Herrings is a bit like a Monty Python sketch with a twist.  The solution turns on railroad timetables an coincidence, along with a missing piece of evidence.  Diverting and clever, and much lighter than Lord Peter's last three outings.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

After I'm Gone

How do you write a crime novel where the crime both sets up the work and doesn't matter to the plot? Laura Lippman managed this task with After I'm Gone.  Felix Brewer disappeared rather than go to jail in 1976.  He left behind his wife and three daughters, and the mistress who drove him to Philadelphia.  A decade later, his former mistress disappeared as well, and someone finds her body in a park in September, 2001.

It's the coldest of cold cases when Sandy Sanchez picks up the file, and his current-day investigations alternate with chronological flashback chapters.  We see Felix, a small time criminal, sweep Bambi off her feet at a dance, and the early years of their marriage marked mainly by Bambi's mother's disapproval.  After Felix leaves, Bambi leans on Felix's lawyer and her two teenage daughters, muddling through and making excuses for her spoiled youngest.  Each woman narrates a few chapters, with distinct voices and perspectives on their family situation.  Overwhelmed Bambi, brisk Linda, analytical Rachel, and spoiled Michelle each show us a few days here and there over the course of fifty years, leaving subtle clues to the murder's surprising identity.

The Night Manager

A single act turned Jonathan Pine from a Cairo hotel manager into a spy.  One night a guest asked Pine to copy some documents.  The guest, though, was a local criminal's mistress and ex-wife of Richard Onslow Roper, the Worst Man in the World, and the documents involved gunrunning.  Pine made his own copies and gave them to a friend at the British consulate.  With this act (and why did he do it? Le Carre doesn't give Pine's motivation), he causes Sophie's murder.

Two years later, Pine meets Roper.  The Worst Man in the World and his entourage check into the Zurich hotel where Pine now works and after a disquieting encounter, Pine offers himself to the secret service.  He's accepted and given a series of new, shady identities before being set up to save Roper's 7-year-old son from kidnappers.  Roper is grateful, but doesn't quite trust him; Roper's second-in-command Major Corkoran, believe Pine is a plant.  Le Carre alternates between scenes of Pine's assimilation into Roper's criminal enterprise and scenes of his handlers sweating it out (sometimes literally) in tiny, drab rooms.  The plot is perhaps a bit too complicated, but Le Carre's language, as usual, is evocative enough to gloss over a little confusion.  Because of this (and an unconvincing romantic subplot), I rank The Night Manager a step or two below the other Le Carre books I've read.  Very good, but with a few flaws that prevent it from reaching excellence.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Islam, Science, and the Challenge of History

Sometimes an author makes an interesting subject too dry to enjoy.  That's how I feel about Islam, Science, and the Challenge of History.  The subject fascinates me - many of the medieval scientific advances happened in the Islamic world - but the Ahmad Dallal's style never engrossed me.  The book, based on a seminar Dallal gave, is a bit too meta for my taste (not so much about Islamic scientific advances but about the culture's reaction to those advances) and I would have preferred more discussion of medical discoveries.