Saturday, September 24, 2016


I've seen Rebecca, of course.  20 years ago, as a first year law student, Friday night was movie night and I focused on classics.  I bought the book over a decade ago (at Atlantic Books in Stone Harbor; the free bookmark listed several stores but by 2008 they were down to that store and the warehouse) and it sat on my shelf long enough for me to forget all but the most basic parts of the story.

I'm glad I did, because I don't think the creepy atmosphere would work quite as well if I knew the real relationship between Rebecca and Maxim.  The narrator, the second Mrs. de Winter, is a young, naive woman who'd been working as a paid companion to a delightfully vulgar character when Maxim de Winter courts and marries her over the course of a few weeks.  She's madly in love, but afraid that Maxim doesn't love her as much as he could have loved Rebecca.  Rebecca de Winter, whom everyone admired and loved.  A woman who inspired such devotion that the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, keeps her room as if it were a shrine.   Du Maurier's elegant but slightly claustrophobic story unrolls through Mrs. de Winter's eyes, letting us know only what she does and leaving the twist truly shocking (at least if you haven't seen the movie recently).

And When She Was Good

Laura Lippman introduced Heloise Lewis in Scratch a Woman, a work too long to be a short story and too short to be a novella, published in Hardly Knew Her.  Given an entire novel, she's less of a cypher and a much more sympathetic character than I expected from the Suburban Madam set-up.

We first see Heloise in her other guise, perfect suburban mother, getting coffee in Starbucks.  As she coolly and logically dresses down two patrons sneering at the story of a murdered suburban madam, she reflects on how shocked those customers would be to know that the perfectly calm and coiffed redhead standing next to them is also a prostitute who both sees personal clients and runs an escort service under the guise of a lobbying firm, the Women's Full Employment Network.  No one knows, or suspects, that the slightly standoffish widow with the perfect life is not as she appears.

Lippman could have used the Suburban Madam Murder as an impetus for Heloise to get out of her business, but she's a more subtle writer.  The crime does nag at Heloise, but it's not her greatest problem.  One of her former employees claims to have contracted HIV while working for WFEN, her contact (and occasional protector) on the police force is about to retire, and her accountant *may* suspect that there's something wrong.  But how can she get out of the business when her imprisoned former pimp (and her son's father) takes half the profits and will have her killed if she tries to leave?  Lippman combines a tightly constructed mystery (although one with two or three more coincidences than I'd like, and a denouement that's just a bit too pat) with flashbacks which show how an emotionally and physically abused teenager named Helen became a prostitute, an informant, and finally the woman she appeared to be.

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken

Warning - potential spoiler

Genre fiction gets dismissed as fluff that doesn't address issues the way "literature" does.  Personally, I'd rather read a mystery that sneaks in a lesson than a literary work staggering under the weight of its importance.  The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken starts out as a typical Vish Puri mystery with a particularly silly case (someone removed the #1 mustache in India from its owners face while he slept) and a cricket match featuring Rumpi's nephew, a rising star.  At the dinner celebrating both the match and the opening of a new stadium, the father of the opposing bowler drops dead, poisoned by his butter chicken.

The next day, an English acquaintance currently leading a Clean Up Cricket campaign hires Puri to investigate the murder.  Kamran Kahn, the dead man's son, appears to be throwing games - if he wanted to get out, gamblers may have killed his father.  Mummy-ji, who was also at the dinner, suspects another motive, one related to the years directly following the partition of India and Pakistan.  Working on both sides of the case and both sides of the border, Vish and his mother solve the mystery and, as Poirot sometimes did, weigh justice against the written law.  

I mentioned that Parnell Hall snuck a lesson into Puri's case, and, unusually, it's mainly a history lesson.  I know very little about that era, but it's not a leap to see that the current animosity between the countries springs in part from their similarities.  Puri's visit to Pakistan is a mix of the familiar (his family is from Punjab, which had been divided in 1947 so to his surprise he understands the dialect) and the strange (restaurants offer beef but not alcohol).  The pain of separation is deeper in Mummy-ji's story, in which she tells her son about her work helping women trapped by politics, religion, and family in the late 1940s.  Hall seamlessly integrates this story, as well as the usual domestic matters (Vish and Rumpi are in an arranged marriage, one that involved love at first sight and which deepened over the decades), with the cricket star's father's murder, tossing in the mustache case as (occasionally) comic relief.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Encore Provence

Peter Mayle returned to Provence in the late 1990s after a few years in New York.  He simultaneously returned to writing about Provence after a handful of novels (starting with the delightful Hotel Pastis).  The result was Encore Provence, fourteen essays on village life, olive oil, wine, lavender, and how to enjoy your time in rural Provence.  They're the literary equivalent of a bar with unusual appetizers and good wine - enjoyable (particularly in good company) and worth revisiting on a regular basis.

Looking for Yesterday

I've said that Marcia Muller's Shraron McCone has never really slumped, but I've now read two consecutive books which, while good, are not up to her standards.  Looking for Yesterday (which precedes The Night Searchers) was entertaining and engrossing, but it never quite added up.

McCone Investigations has relocated to a quaint but inconvenient building (found by office manager Ted Smalley) and Sharon isn't coping well with the transition or the balky elevator.  Grumpily arranging her office, she takes on Caro Warrick's quest to prove her innocence.  Warrick was acquitted of murdering her best friend, but that's not enough for a young woman devoted to the gun control movement.  Someone beats Warrick and leaves her for dead on Sharon's doorstep soon after, and Sharon continues the case on her own, while being stalked and threatened by an unknown assailant.   Is her stalking connected to her case?  In the end, it doesn't really matter because Muller uses it to set up the subplot of The Night Searchers (the potential merger of McCone Investigations with her husband's Ripinski International).