Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Turbo Twenty-Three

Janet Evanovich may run out of T-words by the time she gets to the 40th Stephanie Plum book.  Turbo Twenty-Three isn't as good as Two for the Dough, Hot Six, or  To the Nines (few of her double-digit books have been), but it's her best in a while.  Steph (accompanied by Lula, of course) find her FTA highjacking a tractor trailer full of ice cream.  He steals Lula's car so they chase him in the truck.  You know that's not going to go well, and it doesn't.  Even worse, there's a dead body (frozen, coated in chocolate and rolled in nuts) in among the frozen treats.

It turns out that the ice cream company has hired Rangeman to solve a series of sabotage incidents, so Ranger sends Steph undercover at both his client an a rival.  While working the cup line gives her a few leads, that's not how she finds the murder.  No, she uses coincidence and a few leads from Grandma Mazur's new boyfriend, a bartender who looks like Willie Nelson only older (yes, this induces Mrs. Plum to chug "iced tea" at dinner).  Oh, Steph (unwillingly) and Grandma Mazur (willingly) also help Lula and angry little person Randy Briggs break into reality TV.  Several laugh-out-loud scenes and a good (although abruptly solved) mystery make Turbo Twenty-Three worth the time.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

No Mark Upon Her

My mom has been reading Deborah Crombie's books since the start of the series, but No Mark Upon Her is the first volume she's handed to me.  I prefer reading series from the start, so as soon as my annual book diet ends, I'm gong to start working my way through the thirteen books that precede it.

Rebecca Meredith had been a shoo-in for the Olympic rowing team at 22, until she went skiing and broke her wrist a few months before the trials.  Nearly 15 years later, she's a Scotland Yard DI and maybe, possibly, about to try again for the Olympic team.  When she misses an appointment with her ex-husband (who needs some information on a potential investor, a recently retired police official), he assumes the worst.  He's right - Becca has been murdered and left to drift downstream from her grounded shell.  Police brass call in DI Duncan Kincaid, just married and about to take family leave with his newly adopted daughter.   They trust Duncan to both solve the case and to be discreet, because they suspect that police politics may have lead to Becca's murder.  With his wife, DS Gemma  Jones (still on family leave) and her former assistant Melody Talbot investigating the rumors that bubble up during the official case, Duncan and his assistant Doug Cullen discover the killer's identity.

Or did they?  Crombie pulls off one of the hardest tricks for a mystery novelist, a true surprise ending that's fully supported.  That, and how skillfully Crombie blends in Duncan's and Gemma's domestic life, is why I now have a new series to read.

Murder 101

I predicted Peter Decker's retirement from the LAPD four books ago in Blindman's Bluff.  I was wrong in thinking that he'd retire altogether and that Cindy Decker Kutiel would become the new protagonist.  That's probably a good thing, because Faye Kellerman has relocated Cindy and her NP-turned-med-student husband Kody to Philadelphia and I suspect that the West Coast based author would place neighborhoods in the wrong parts of the city and make Walnut Street run north/south.

Decker hasn't actually retired.  Instead, he's moved to a college town in upstate New York and joined the local police force.  The police deal mainly with small property crimes and sub-critical medical problems - and Tyler McAdams, a rich kid working as a police officer "until I start law school" and mainly to irritate his wealthy and overbearing father.  McAdams is smart, but arrogant and condescending, so naturally Rina invites him to the Shabbat dinner she holds for local students.  That evening, the police chief calls Decker to investigate a break-in at the local cemetery.  It turns out that someone has replaced two of four Louis Comfort Tiffany panels in one of the mausoleums with fakes.  A few days later, a senior art student is found murdered.  The two crimes lead Decker McAdams into the art world and, with some research help from Rina, to a solution I found a bit too abrupt and too wide-ranging to be fully satisfying.

I did, however, enjoy Murder 101 as a novel.  Peter has spent his entire career with experienced detectives, so I enjoyed watching him instruct a rookie in the basics of police work.  The Deckers' East Coast relocation means that they can visit their kids, so they (and we) have dinner with Sammy and his wife Rachel, Jake and his girlfriend Ilana, Hannah and her fiancĂ© Rafe, and Cindy and Kody.  There are even cameo appearances by Marge Dunn (by phone) and Scott Oliver, and McAdams's grandmother, a stereotypical but entertaining grande dame.  The 22nd book in the series made me want to go back and read the first.

The Counterfeit Heiress

Warning - Spoiler in the link

A few years ago, every mystery I read seemed to have a subplot (usually one that detracted from the main story and/or involved "old friends" never mentioned before or since).  My current trend is parallel stories, and my authors use it much more successfully.  The Counterfeit Heiress is the third consecutive Lady Emily book to include a separate narrative which adds a new perspective to the main mystery.  It's no surprise that Tasha Alexander does this well; And Only To Deceive used this method to give Lady Emily a reason to solve her husband's death.

Alexander's secondary storyline features Estella Lamar.  One of Cecile's old friends, the mysterious world traveler has only been seen in blurry photographs since abruptly leaving on her travels.  Years later, someone claiming to be Estella shows up at the party of the season, a costume ball at Devonshire house thrown in honor of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee.  Cecile recognizes her as an imposter and the woman, wearing a costume very similar to Emily's, runs off.  Someone murders the imposter before anyone can identify her and Emily and her husband Colin make discreet inquiries at the request of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire.

Cecile, meanwhile, begins to wonder what happened to her friend Estella?  She's been sending dispatches back from her travels, but no one has actually seen her.  Upon analysis, her travels seem impossible, taking too little or too much time to get from point to point.  Estella's Paris and London homes are both fully staffed despite the fact that the mistress of the house hasn't been in residence for over 20 years.  Has she been kidnapped?  Is she even still alive?  Inspired by a true story, Estella's fate caused her imposter's death, but Alexander still manages to make the murderer a mostly sympathetic character.  It's a nice twist on the traditional mystery.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Sins of the Fathers

A few weeks ago, I realized that fiction written in the last third of the 20th Century can fall into an uncanny valley.  It's familiar but foreign.  I filter most of the 1970s through childhood and the 1980s through the inward focus of a teenager and college student, but I recognize the landmarks.  Ruth Rendell's early novels fall slightly outside that range.  They're not-quite-old movies and TV shows I saw on UHF channels on rainy weekends.

Rendell was rightly lauded for bringing a psychological edge to the mystery novel, but it makes her earlier works rather dated.  Henry Archery's son is engaged to the daughter of a convicted murderer.  A brilliant and charming Oxford student, she can't (according to the common knowledge of the day) be the child of such a brute.  Using this logic, Archery asks Inspector Wexford to reopen the case, one of Wexford's first, and exonerate Herbert Painter of the viscous murder of his employer, the elderly Mrs. Primero.  Rendell provides us, and Archery, with alternative suspects (the victim's grandson, an unstable local woman) and motivations (money), but the twist is itself a twist.  The conclusion of Sins of the Fathers conforms to the beliefs of the day, but upends two things that we think we know at the start of the book.

Main Street

Babbit was on my summer reading list for 10th grade.  I hated it.  It was my original cookie book (read a few pages, reward yourself with a cookie, repeat until done).  When I reread it while we discussed it in class, though, I fell in love.  Sinclair Lewis was a master at portraying flawed but mostly decent people who quietly chafe against a conformist society, appearing to - or wanting to - fit in but never quite feeling comfortable about it.

I wonder if Carol Kennicott would fit in anywhere.  We meet her as a college student, vibrant, enthusiastic, and a bit remote.  A judge's daughter from Mankato (neither a small town nor a large city), she has no close friends and isn't close to her only relative, an older sister.  It's her sister who introduces Carol, by  then working as a librarian in St. Paul, to Dr. Will Kennicott, a country GP who apparently came to town to find a wife (I wonder if he had a shopping list of desired characteristics).  He think she's pretty; she's bored and enticed by the chance to Do Good in a Small Town.

Carol quickly realizes that she's the victim of a bait and switch.  Main Street Gopher Prairie is populated by narrow-minded, mean-spirited, materialistic conformists. Will is a good doctor, but he's extremely condescending towards the immigrant farmers he treats and more interested in land speculation than healing.  His friends are crude and the Jolly Seventeen - the young, fashionable wives - are a catty bunch of cliquish "mean girls."  Carol's attempts to improve the town fail, through the scorn of the town and, sadly, Carol's lack of skill or endurance.  Her story grows darker as she makes friends who are driven from the town, each one leaving a film of suspicion on Carol's reputation.

Lewis could have made Carol a selfless crusader crushed by the evil town, but he's more subtle.  Carol is mostly right (the town is drab, crude, and ugly), but she acts arbitrarily and often without considering the whether her goals are right for Gopher Prairie.  She's also not very good at reforming, becoming discouraged and then losing interest at the first obstacle.  Will is the wrong husband for Carol, but he's not necessarily a bad person, and while some of the townspeople are vicious others come across as weak and easily led.  Carol is trapped, but partially because she took the path of least resistance.  I sympathize with her, then look at her short-sighted decisions.  And then I wonder, did she have other options?