One-Minute Book Reviews

July 3, 2008

The Five Essential Crime Novels Published Since 2000 Are …

Filed under: Mysteries and Thrillers — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:45 am
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Since the 1970s, the two major branches of crime fiction — the English cozy and the American hard-boiled — have “divided and proliferated,” Richard Shephard and Nick Rennison argue in their 100 Must-Read Crime Novels (A&C Black, 2006), a Bloomsbury Good Reading Guide www.acblack.com. One result is that the field now ranges from “the tartan noir of Ian Rankin to the Roman scandals of Steven Saylor, from Donna Leon’s shadow-filled Venice to the mean streets of Walter Mosley’s LA.”

But can the recent expansion be sustained? How many of those “must-read” crime novels have appeared in the 21st century? Among the 100 essential books reviewed in their guide, Shephard and Rennison list five published since 2000:

Flinch (2001) by Robert Ferrigno. Ferrigno has set his books “mainly in the sun-kissed idyll and moral vacuum” of southern California, and he returns to it in Flinch. Reporter Jimmy Gage becomes involved in the hunt for a serial killer in a novel that, Shephard and Rennison say, “may well be Ferrigno’s finest offering.”

The Bottoms (2000) by Joe R. Lansdale. “Joe Lansdale is best known for his series of violently farcical novels in which Hap Collins, white and straight, and Leonard Pine, black and gay, join forces in an odd crime team let loose among the rednecks in the Deep South, but The Bottoms is something very different,” Shephard and Rennison write. The novel, set east Texas in the mid-1930s, involves the discovery of a mutilated body bound to a tree in the river bottoms near the home of its young narrator, Harry Crane.

Tell No One (2001) by Harlan Coben. A young married couple plan to celebrate the anniversary of their first kiss at a lake in Pennsylvania, but during the tryst Elizabeth is murdered and David is beaten and left for dead. Eight years later to the day, David receives an e-mail message telling him to visit a Web site that contains the command: “tell no one.” “Coben masterfully piles on the suspense and tension,” the editors say, and sets “a relentless pace that holds till the final page.”

Mystic River (2001) by Dennis Lehane. The plot may hinge on implausible coincidences, but Shephard and Rennison see this as an “entirely compelling story” about three friends and something terrible that happened to them twenty-five years ago in Boston. For an alternate view of Mystic River, see the review posted on this site on Oct. 17, 2006 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/10/17/.

Dialogues of the Dead (2002) by Reginald Hill. In a novel that brings back Superintendent Andy Dalziel and Chief Inspector Peter Pascoe of the Mid-Yorkshire police, two deaths regarded as accidents come under new scrutiny when stories entered in a library’s short story contest contain details only someone close to the crimes could have known. All of Hill’s fiction shows his love of word games and literary allusions, Shephard and Rennison say, and this book places that love at the heart of the plot.

Not sure you’d like any of those books? Bill Peschel has an archive of reviews of other mysteries at Reader’s Almanac www.planetpeschel.com/index?/reviews/index/C5/.

Have you read a good crime novel that you would recommend that others? If so why not leave a comment on the post for the latest meeting of One-Minute Book Reviews online book club www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/07/01/, where people are discussing the books they are taking on vacation?

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 2, 2008

Five ‘Must-Read’ Crime Novels of the 20th Century — What Are Their 21st-Century Equivalents?

Filed under: Classics,Mysteries and Thrillers — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:49 am
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Vera Caspary’s Laura. George V. Higgins’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Tony Hillerman’s A Thief of Time. Georges Simenon’s Maigret Sets a Trap. Ruth Rendell’s An Unkindness of Ravens. These five 20th-century books made a list of “100 Must-Read Crime Novels” in recent guide to detective stories and other kinds of suspense fiction. (Speaking just for myself: You could argue with some of those choices — is any of the scores of Maigret novels really the “best”? — but would even the most curmudgeonly fan of the genre object to The Friends of Eddie Coyle?) What are the five essential crime novels of the 21st century? Yes, the guide lists only five. The answer will appear tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

June 12, 2008

The Best Book to Have on Hand in a Power Blackout

We’re still living in a state of emergency in my part of New Jersey, where some streets look like a scene from the Book of Revelation with pizza deliveries. Tens of thousands of people aren’t expected to get their electricity back until Friday. And it made me wonder: What’s the best book to have on hand during a power blackout? Pragmatists might argue for the American Red Cross First Aid and Safety Handbook or, possibly, the Kama Sutra. But – speaking just for myself – I’d want The Complete Sherlock Holmes in any edition. What book makes for better reading aloud by candlelight to anyone over the age of six? What plot device offers a more reliable diversion from the inconveniences of life without microwave popcorn than the deadly swamp adder in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” or that strange dog on the moors in “The Hound of the Baskervilles”? You can download 48 Sherlock Holmes stories for free at 221bakerstreet.org/, which also has a discussion forum and more.

Here’s news on the blackout that inspired this post: www.nj.com/newsflash/index.ssf?/base/news-32/1213231759129640.xml&storylist=jersey

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 13, 2008

John Buchan’s ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’ Stands Up to Hitchcock

John Buchan’s classic suspense novel helped set the tone for nearly a century of spy fiction

The Thirty-Nine Steps. By John Buchan. Introduction by John Keegan. Penguin Classics, 144 pp., $9, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Anybody who knows The Thirty-Nine Steps only from Alfred Hitchock’s movie is missing a treat.

That film – good as it is — takes liberties with John Buchan’s plot that are as wild as the Scottish moors on which its hero finds himself hunted by his enemies. So no matter how many times you’ve seen Robert Donat handcuffed to Madeleine Carroll, it won’t spoil a reading of the novel. With good reason, Buchan called the book one of his “shockers,” or stories that set personal dramas against tense political realities.

Part of the allure of The Thirty-Nine Steps is that by the standards of today’s spy novels and movies, it is as sleek as a stiletto. It has none of the bloviating of John le Carré’s most recent books or the logic-defying plot twists of Mission Impossible. Buchan is a storyteller in the tradition of his fellow Scot and contemporary Arthur Conan Doyle – he tells you exactly what you need to know to understand his tale and nothing more.

The Thirty-Nine Steps is the first of his five novels about Richard Hannay, a 37-year-old Scottish-born engineer and patriot and with a thirst for adventure. Hannay has returned from years in Rhodesia and found himself bored with England. (“It struck me that Albania was the sort of place that might keep a man from yawning.”) His boredom evaporates when he agrees to shelter a spy who has learned of a secret German plan to invade England.

When the man is murdered, Hannay flees to the Scotland, where he hopes to lie low for a while amid the remote glens and moors. There he is hunted both by the British police who consider him a suspect and the Germans who have killed the spy. After being spotted from an airplane, Hannay tries to elude his pursuers by donning a series of disguises and traveling by foot, bicycle and train through Scotland. To save himself, he must find a way to warn the British government what he has learned from the murdered spy.

First published in 1915, The Thirty-Nine Steps was one of the first novels to include many of the elements of the modern thriller, such as car chases and aerial surveillance. And along with all the action, the novel has astute psychological insights. For all of his reliance on outer disguises, Hannay knows that they are nowhere near as important to crime as the inner ability to play a role. “A fool tries to look different: a clever man looks the same but is different,” he observes. He adds, “If you are playing a part, you will never keep it up unless you convince yourself that you are it.” Much of The Thirty-Nine Steps turns on this observation, and it suggests a psychological truth that has shaped suspense novels ever since: The dangers posed by people who are hiding in plain sight — and playing their part well enough to need no disguises — can be far more terrifying than those raised by criminals who wear ski masks on the deserted streets we know enough to avoid.

Best line: “My guest was lying sprawled on his back. There was a long knife through his heart which skewered him to the floor.”

Worst line: “ Mors janua vitae,’ he smiled.” The problem isn’t the use of the Latin for “death is the gate of life” – it’s the “he smiled.”

Movie Links: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 version with Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll www.imdb.com/title/tt0026029/; Ralph Thomas’s 1959 version www.imdb.com/title/tt0053354/; Don Sharp’s 1978 version www.imdb.com/title/tt0078389//

Published: 1915 (first edition) and May 2008 (latest Penguin Classics edition). The 2008 Penguin edition has an introduction by the distinguished military historian John Keegan (which should be interesting, given that such prefaces are typically written by scholars of literature instead of history, but I haven’t seen it).

Furthermore: The Thirty-Nine Steps is typically described as a novel but is short enough that it might be more properly called a novella.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

April 29, 2008

English on the Outside, American on the Inside – Sleuth Maisie Dobbs Returns in Jacqueline Winspear’s ‘An Incomplete Revenge’

A World War I battlefield nurse-turned-private-eye looks into a series of unexplained fires in a village in Kent

An Incomplete Revenge: A Maisie Dobbs Novel. By Jacqueline Winspear. Holt, 303 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

For a sleuth in Depression–era England, Maisie Dobbs acts remarkably like a modern American. She relies less on gathering tangible clues than on asking personal questions that Brits of her day – or any day – would have answered with nowhere near the speed they do in this book. And instead of favoring Holmesian deduction she tends to heed her unerring instincts, honed by her work as a World War I battlefield nurse and her training as a professional psychologist.

But for all its incongruities, An Incomplete Revenge is a stellar cozy, the name often applied to the type of mystery that has an amateur female sleuth and no gratuitous sex or violence. This is a book you can give your mother for Mother’s Day without worrying that she’ll disinherit you because it turns into snuff on page 167.

In her fifth outing, Maisie Dobbs travels from her home in London to a troubled village in Kent, where she investigates a series of fires and petty crimes for a friend who is hoping to buy property there. It’s the season for picking hops, the bitter herb essential to beer-making, and migrants have streamed into town on trains known as a “Hoppers’ Specials.” Some locals blame those outsiders or an influx of gypsies for the unsolved crimes in the village. Maisie isn’t so sure — and not just because there’s Roma blood on her late mother’s side of the family — and goes after the truth.

For many mystery writers, that would be the beginning and end of the story. Winspear goes further in An Incomplete Revenge. Her several plotlines neatly weave together topics as diverse as gypsy lore, violin-making, equestrian care, the Kentish landscape and the effects of a World War I zeppelin bombing on rural England. But these subjects never become a drag on the plot or devolve into a history lesson. Maisie may be American on the inside and English on the outside, but she inhabits a world uniquely her own.

Best line: Maisie reflects as she sees gypsy women cooking while wearing big white aprons: “The apron, Maisie knew, was worn less to protect clothing from stains and splashes than to provide a barrier between the body of the cook and the food to be eaten. In gypsy lore, if food came in close proximity to a woman’s body, it was considered mokada – sullied – and not worth the eating.”

Worst line: Winspear’s dialogue is occasionally too expositional. A friend of Maisie’s says: “So, despite Ramsay MacDonald being pressed to form a National Government to get us through this mess, and well-founded talk of Britain going off the gold standard any day now, there’s still room for optimism – and I want to move ahead soon.” Then there’s the passage in which Maisie tells her father, “Dad, I’ve been thinking about Nana,” and he replies, “Your mother’s mother?”

Published: February 2008 www.jacquelinewinspear.com

Reading group guide: At us.macmillan.com/anincompleterevenge.You can also read or listen to an excerpt at this site.

Furthermore: Winspear grew up, in part, in Kent, and lives in California. Her honors for the Maisie Dobbs series include an Agatha Award (given by Malice Domestic to books that, like Christie’s, have no gratuitous sex or violence).

For an English perspective on Maisie Dobbs, read this post by Michael Allen of the Grumpy Old Bookman blog grumpyoldbookman.blogspot.com/2006/03/jacqueline-winspear-maisie-dobbs.html. For more on hops, visit the site for America Hop Museum www.americanhopmuseum.org in the Yakima Valley.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

Why Do We Like to Read Mysteries? (Quote of the Day / David Lodge)

Filed under: Mysteries and Thrillers,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:24 am
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Why do mysteries and thrillers so often seem to dominate the bestseller lists? Why have writers as different as Agatha Christie and John Grisham both ranked among the most popular of their eras? Here’s an answer from the novelist and critic David Lodge in The Art of Fiction (Viking, 1993), an excellent collection of 50 brief essays for serious readers on how the different aspects of fiction (such as irony, point of view and coincidence) relate to the whole:

“A solved mystery is ultimately reassuring to readers, asserting the triumph of reason over instinct, of order over anarchy, whether in the tales of Sherlock Holmes or in the case histories of Sigmund Freud, which bear such a striking and suspicious resemblance to them. That is why mystery is an invariable ingredient of popular narrative, whatever its form – prose fiction or movies or television soaps. Modern literary novelists, in contrast, wary of neat solutions and happy endings, have tended to invest their mysteries with an aura of ambiguity or leave them unsolved.”

Comment by Jan:
Some critics have described the appeal of mysteries in starker terms. While Lodge argues that they assert “the triumph of reason over instinct” and “order over anarchy,” others say that they are at heart morality tales – they represent the triumph of good over evil.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 28, 2008

Jacqueline Winspear’s Latest Maisie Dobbs Mystery, ‘An Incomplete Revenge,’ Coming This Week

Filed under: Historical Novels,Mysteries and Thrillers — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:14 pm
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Few suspense novelists have won more praise recently than Jaqueline Winspear has earned for her historical mysteries about Maisie Dobbs, a World War I nurse-turned-private investigator in London. Winspear has won Alex, Agatha and Macavity Awards for books in the series, which began with Maisie Dobbs and continues with the just-published fifth installment, An Incomplete Revenge. Should you consider giving one of them as a Mother’s Day gift to someone who loves mysteries or historical novels? Check back later this week for a review. Click here to read or listen to an excerpt or find a reading group guide us.macmillan.com/anincompleterevenge.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 18, 2008

Is This ‘Da Vinci Code’ Acolyte a Delete Key Awards Candidate?

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,Mysteries and Thrillers,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:36 pm
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What kind of writing might qualify for one of the Delete Key Awards, given to authors who don’t use their delete keys enough? Bill Peschel over at Reader’s Almanac nails it with his suggestion of D. L. Wilson’s Unholy Grail, a Da Vinci Code acolyte that involves a manuscript said to be written by Jesus’ brother, James, and includes characters such as rogue priest who is killing others around the world and marking their bodies with stigmata.

This paperback original might seem like small potatoes compared with Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach (longlisted for a “Bad Sex” in fiction award) and Steve Martin and Roz Chast’s The Alphabet From A to Y, a book for roughly 2-to-4-year-olds that sends the message that kids are never too young to make fun of people with disabilities. But Bill noted that Unholy Grail “fights above its weight with its combination of subject matter, timeliness and powerfully bad writing.”

Here are three of my favorite Delete Key contenders from this religious thriller, chosen from a rich list that Bill sent:

“For two thousand years, Christianity’s held up pretty darn well.”

“’Here’s the kicker, Charlie,’ Carlota sank into her chair and let out a sigh. ‘Professor Hamar’s husband felt so much guilt over contributing to the disease that killed their son that he committed suicide.’ Charlie smacked his hands to his head so hard he knocked his cap off.”

“A uniformed task force had been sent to the Hotel Royal and, thank God, there was no dead priest in any of the rooms.”

You can find a review of Unholy Grail on Bill Peschel’s site www.planetpeschel.com/index?/reviews/bookreview/the_jesus_and_mary_chain/ and a blurb for it from Clive Cussler (“a tale rich with intrigue”) on D.L. Wilson’s www.dlwilsonbooks.com.To find out if the novel it made Delete Key Award shortlist, check back on Feb. 29, when One-Minute Book Reviews will announce the finalists for this year’s prizes.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

December 19, 2007

My Dear Watson, It’s Arthur Conan Doyle’s Classic Sherlock Holmes Christmas Story – ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’

The world’s most famous detective must figure out how a priceless gem ended up in a white goose

By Janice Harayda

Great holiday crime stories are rare. Set a murder mystery against the backdrop of a celebration of the birth of Christ and you risk accusations of trivializing the season or playing it for heavy irony. And who wants to be reminded that the wreath-draped mall teems with pickpockets or that burglars may strike after we leave for the airport?

Part of the genius of “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” is that it implicitly acknowledges such realities. Arthur Conan Doyle begins this Sherlock Holmes tale on the second morning after Christmas. It’s a holiday story without the freight it would carry if it took place two days earlier. And it has a plot perfectly attuned to the season. Holmes has the benign Watson by his side as usual. But he doesn’t face his arch-foe, Moriarty, or a killer armed with a gun or a trained swamp adder as in “The Dancing Men” or “The Speckled Band.” He needs only to find out why a priceless gem – the blue carbuncle – turned up in the gullet of a Christmas goose abandoned on a London street.

Of course, it isn’t that simple. But Holmes resolves the case, in fewer than a dozen pages, with panache and in a spirit of holiday generosity. You could probably read “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” aloud in 20 minutes or so as a yule log burns. And it appeals to nearly all ages – not just to adults but to children who need more dramatic fare than The Polar Express.

Part of the allure all the Sherlock Holmes tales is that, while their stories are exciting, Holmes is imperturbable. “My name is Sherlock Holmes,” he tells a suspect in “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.” “It is my business to know what other people don’t know.” How nice that, in this case, he knows how to set the right tone – in a secular if not religious sense – for the season.

Furthermore: You can download “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” for free at the online Classic Literature Library, which makes available at no cost books in the public domain: sherlock-holmes.classic-literature.co.uk/the-adventure-of-the-blue-carbuncle/. At top left is the Audio CD “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes — The Blue Carbuncle” (Mitso Media, 2006), read by James Alexander, available on Amazon www.amazon.com and elsewhere.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. It is also for people who dislike long-winded weasel reviews that are full of facts and plot summaries but don’t tell you what the critic thought of the book.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 1, 2007

Highland Games Set the Stage for Murder in Kaitlyn Dunnett’s Mystery With a Scottish Accent, ‘Kilt Dead’

Kilt Dead: A Liss MacCrimmon Mystery. By Kaitlyn Dunnett. Kensington, 282 pp., $22.

By Janice Harayda

These are chilly times for amateur sleuths, those busybodies who solve crimes when they aren’t running bookstores or hair salons or catering services. Their efforts typically depend on a combination of legwork, intuition and the incompetence of the local police, who are too lazy or corrupt to find a killer who has turned up in a picturesque spot like the Ozarks or Cotswolds. And it’s getting harder to make their low-tech successes credible in an age of DNA testing, magnetic resonance imaging and other high-tech aids to crime-solving.

Kaitlyn Dunnett gets part way there in her first mystery about 27-year-old Liss MacCrimmon, who returns to her hometown in western Maine after suffering a career-ending injury while performing with a Riverdance-like Scottish dance company. Back in Moosetookalook, Liss becomes entangled in a murder committed at her aunt’s kilt-and-souvenir shop while the annual Highland Games are going on nearby.

Dunnett lacks a distinctive voice and draws her characters so broadly that most seem to wear hats as white or black as those in the “Spy vs. Spy” series in Mad. But she has staked out a part of New England that has few, if any, other takers in the mystery subgenre known as the cozy. And she has tapped into an enduring American romance with Scottish traditions, from bagpipes to single malts, that the infatuation with Tuscany and Provence hasn’t extinguished. Braveheart may have been ludicrouly unfaithful to the historical record, but it got one thing right: Scottish murders have a ghastliness all their own.

Best line: Dunnett sprinkles her story with bits of Scottish history or tradition, such as this one about a sgian dubh, the small dagger traditionally worn with a kilt: “Sgian dubh translates as ‘black dagger’ and in the old days warriors believed it should never be drawn and returned to its scabbard without spilling blood.”

Worst line: “Dan felt the back of his neck turn red.” He might have felt it getting warm, but could he feel it turning red? And some of Dunnett’s Scottish lore is misleading. One scene involves a man at the Highland Games who wears swimming trunks under his kilt while throwing the clachneart, similar to a shot put. Dunnett explains the bathing suit by saying, “A traditional Scot wasn’t supposed to wear anything at all beneath the kilt, but this was an American version of the Highland Games …” Men also wear trunks under their kilts during field events at Highland Games in Scotland and elsewhere. Even the British Army — which has much stricter rules than others about the wearing of the kilt — exempts from the “nothing underneath” rule any soldiers who are participating in these events and certain others, including parades.

Published: August 2007 www.kaitlyndunnett.com and www.kensingtonbooks.com

Furthermore: Dunnett is a former drummer with a bagpipe band. “Kaitlyn Dunnett” is an apparent pseudonym for Kathy Lynn Emerson, who holds the copyright to Kilt Dead, and plays off the “dunnit” in “whodunnit.” Emerson has written more than 30 books, including the Lady Appleton mystery series, set in 16th-century Scotland. The name of Liss MacCrimmon recalls Scotland’s most famous family of bagpipers, the MacCrimmons. In Scotland a great piper in sometimes called “a real MacCrimmon” in the way that a great musician in 18th century German was called “a real Bach.”

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an award-winning critic and former member of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society who has danced with Scottish dance groups throughout the U.S. and Scotland.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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