One-Minute Book Reviews

July 13, 2012

Donna Leon’s ‘Drawing Conclusions’ – Art and Death in Venice

Filed under: Fiction,Mysteries and Thrillers,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:56 am
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A mystery built on the theme that uncharacteristic behavior may reveal someone’s true character

Drawing Conclusions. By Donna Leon. Penguin, 260 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Guido Brunetti has a wife he loves “to the point of folly” and two children in whom he has “invested every hope of happiness on this earth.” Those facts alone set him apart from the many fictional detectives who live by variations on Rudyard Kipling’s ”Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne, / He travels the fastest who travels alone.”

But Donna Leon’s Venetian police commissioner also has a rare wisdom and humanity in a field littered with sleuths who get by on wisecracks and macho swagger. Like Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret, Commissario Brunetti tends to solve crimes through a keen grasp of human nature rather than shoot-‘em-up gunslinging or high forensic gimmickry. That pattern holds in the 20th Brunetti mystery, which involves the death of a widow who sheltered battered women in her Venice apartment. Several valuable drawings have vanished from the victim’s walls, including a Corot, and the case looks like an art theft turned tragic. Brunetti suspects that something more complex has occurred, and his findings ultimately make the lost artworks look like a red herring.

So the appeal of Drawing Conclusions lies less in its plotting than in its atmospheric portrait of Venice, its psychological insights, and its author’s ability to develop a theme across multiple characters, not  just in that of the victim or a foe. Brunetti knows that as Dante’s Inferno has “thieves transformed into lizards, lizards into thieves, the moment of transformation invisible until complete,” people can be two things at once. Or, as his mother believed, uncharacteristic behavior can show someone’s true character. In this novel Brunetti shows that he, too, can be two things at once. And he paradoxically shows an admirable dimension of his character when he acts in an uncharacteristic way.

Best line: No. 1: He was “seduced into the suspicion that trace elements of humanity were still to be found in his superior’s soul.” No. 2: “Brunetti had struck on a truth, and he knew it: even the worst men wanted to be perceived as better than they were.”

Worst line: “a blonde woman.” “Blonde” is a noun that refers to a person, “blond” an adjective that describes a hair color. [Please see Victoria Corby's comment on different uses of "blond" and "blonde" in the U.S. and U.K.]

Published: 2011 (Heinemann hardcover), 2012 (Penguin paperback).

Furthermore: Leon talks to Tim Heald in a Telegraph interview about her Brunetti novels.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar at right.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

June 24, 2009

Why Do We Keep Reading Mystery Series That Are Running Out of Gas? Maureen Corrigan on Robert B. Parker’s ‘Spenser’ Novels

Filed under: Mysteries and Thrillers — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:46 am
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Why do we keep reading novels in mystery or other series long after their plots have become formulaic and their characters have begun to repeat themselves? Sometimes the answer is simple: We hope their authors will regain their form.

But I’ve stayed with series after I knew that wouldn’t happen and continued to enjoy them. And Maureen Corrigan offers a possible explanation for why in a discussion of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels in Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books (Vintage, 240 pp., $14.95, paperback). Corrigan says she started reading the Spenser series in part because it “helped to transform the macho politics of the private eye and also the profession’s monkish lifestyle” with by having a male hero who has a mostly monogamous relationship with a female therapist.

“When I began reading them the Spenser novels were pretty much out there in terms of their depiction of utopian alternatives to the traditional nuclear family,” she writes.

The series has changed a lot since its launch, with The Godwulf Manuscript, in 1973, but she’s stayed with it. Corrigan writes:

”Whenever a new Spenser novel appears, usually every spring, I still read it in one or two sittings. By now, the plot is almost beside the point. Instead, I read the latest greatly diminished Spenser novels to check in with his extended alternative family: I’m curious about what Hawk is up to these days and about Paul’s ongoing search for love and Susan’s latest home purchase. Reading the Spenser novels now is a little like reading one of those chatty holiday letters that come tucked in Christmas cards. The story lines are predictable, but still, it’s nice to keep up with who’s lost weight, gotten married, or had a set of brass knuckles smashed into his face.”

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

June 22, 2009

Krait Expectations — James Patterson’s ‘The 8th Confession’

Patterson writes at a 10-year-old reading level in the his new “Women’s Murder Club” novel

The 8th Confession. By James Patterson and Maxine Paetro. Little, Brown, 352 pp., $27.99.

By Janice Harayda

Who are the intended readers of The 8th Confession? The large font and generous white space suggest that James Patterson wrote it for nursing-home residents or people reading the book by candlelight while eating Beanie Weenies out of a can during a power blackout. But the short chapters – generally, no more than three pages long – make you wonder if he had in mind fans of MTV. And what about the 5th grade or 10-year-old reading level that the novel has, according to the readability statistics that come with Microsoft Word?

Clearly a lot of people don’t care about the conflicts. Fifty-four titles appear on a list of “Books by James Patterson” at the back of The 8th Confession, many of them worldwide bestsellers. Patterson’s latest is a glorified police procedural and the eighth volume in his popular  “Women’s Murder Club” series that involves Detective Lindsay Boxer, San Francisco Chronicle reporter Cindy Thomas and others who try to solve their boyfriend problems along with crimes.

On the evidence of The 8th Confession, it’s hard to account for Patterson’s appeal. “James Patterson likes rape, torture, mutilation and death,” Gary Dexter wrote in the Spectator. That’s a polite way of saying that he likes scum, and his new book involves several types: a streetwise con artist with a history of recruiting girls and turning them into crack dealers, an ex-beauty queen on trial for bludgeoning her father to death with a crowbar, and a psychopath who is murdering San Francisco’s rich with a krait that leaves hard-to-spot bite marks.

The large font and small chapters create at least the illusion of a fast-moving plot – a trick a lot of novelists have caught onto – because you’re continually turning pages. And Patterson has a stronger grip on the English language than some blockbuster authors. He doesn’t bludgeon you with inanities like Stephenie Meyer’s deathless, “It’s a voluntary choice” — a line that, you suspect, he would never allow in one of his novels. But The 8th Confession has neither heart nor soul nor even much tension or San Francisco atmosphere (though we do learn that Restaurant LuLu is “the place for homey Provenςal cooking, rich casseroles and pizzas grilled in a hickory-wood oven”). The ending of The 8th Confession, which has eight people confessing to one crime, devolves into farce. It may tell you all you need to know about this novel that a line intended to crank up the suspense is: “Booker has Al Sharpton’s home number and he’s threatening to use it.”

Best line: “Tyco was wearing his party clothes: a feather boa around his slender shoulders, nipple rings, and a black satin thong.”

Worst line: No. 1: “There were times when reporting to Jacobi was like having bamboo slivers pushed under my finger nails.” This cliché should have died with Mao. No. 2: “But a year and a half ago a psycho with an illegal sublet and an anger-management problem,  living two floors above her, had sneaked into apartments and gone on a brutal killing spree.” As opposed to one of those killing sprees that wasn’t brutal. No. 3: “ ‘I’m not finished talking yet,’ I growled at Cindy.”

Published: April 2009

About the author: Patterson has also written 14 novels about the psychologist Alex Cross, including Jack & Jill, Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider. He lives in Florida.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer, the book columnist for Glamour, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

January 6, 2009

‘Hamlet, Revenge!’ A Classic Shakespeare-Inspired Detective Novel

Filed under: Mysteries and Thrillers — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:14 pm
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Will the bestsellerdom of the Hamlet-influenced The Story of Edgar Sawtelle lead to more fiction that nods to Shakespeare? Hard to say, in part David Wroblewski’s first novel is so long, it may leave you feeling that you’ve had your fill of the Bard for a while. But if you’d like to find more fiction inspired by the Shakespeare, you might track down the classic mystery Hamlet, Revenge!, which made the cut for Richard Shephard and Nick Rennison’s 100 Must-Read Crime Novels (A&C Black, 2006).

“For 50 years, the Oxford don J.I.M. Stewart used the pseudonym Michael Innes to publish a series of self-consciously erudite, whimsical crime stories, crammed with literary allusions and featuring the urbane and intelligent police inspector, John Appleby,” the authors say. “The best of the series, Hamlet, Revenge!, is set, like so many novels from the Golden Age of English detective fiction, against the backdrop of a country house party. During the party, an amateur production of Hamlet is staged and, at the moment Polonius is due to be stabbed behind the arras, the actor playing him, a political high flyer named Lord Auldearn, is shot dead. Inspector Appleby finds himself pursuing the murderer down the corridors of power and looking for suspects among the great and good of the land.”

Shephard and Rennison note that Innes belongs to what the novelist and critic Julian Symons once called the “farceur” school of English detective fiction, a group of books that often have improbable characters and over-the-top plots.

“No one should pick up a Michael Innes novel expecting social realism or mean streets,” the authors add, “but in books like Hamlet, Revenge! And Appleby’s End, he did create his own unmistakable word in which to unfold his fantastic and often farcical plots.”

Question of the Day: Another Hamlet-influenced novel is Iris Murdoch’s literary thriller The Black Prince. What are some of the others — good or bad — inspired by the play?

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda,com

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

October 11, 2007

Why Do People Like Westerns? Quote of the Day (William Kittredge)

Why do people like Western stories in books, movies and other media? Here’s an answer from the novelist William Kittredge:

“The Western is a story in which we get to have our cake and eat it. Shane does the killing, then rides into the mythical Tetons, carrying all our guilt away with him. Our problems have been solved quickly, and we are off the hook, guilt free, ready to go on, no blood on our hands.

“The Western is a story as ancient as warfare, about solving problems with violence, the great simple solution …

“It would be pretty to think the American version of this ancient showdown shoot-’em-up story of aggression enshrined has vanished. But it hasn’t.

“The Western mutated and went to the edge of the continent and downtown with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and the cops and detectives (think of Chinatown as the last Western movie). Lately the Western has gone into virtual worlds and outer space, where the same old story is being endlessly reenacted by killer androids.”

William Kittredge in The Portable Western Reader (Penguin, 1997) edited and with an introduction by William Kittredge us.penguingroup.com. The book gathers essays, poems and more, from ancient tribal tales to work of well-known contemporary authors such as Louise Erdrich. Richard Ford, Barry Lopez and Larry McMurtry and Leslie Marmon Silko.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

September 26, 2007

Agatha Christie’s Iraq Novel, ‘Murder in Mesopotamia’

“The dirt and the mess in Baghdad you wouldn’t believe – and not romantic at all like you’d think from the Arabian Nights! Of course, it’s pretty just on the river, but the town itself is just awful – and no proper shops at all.”
— From a letter by the nurse Amy Leatheran in Murder in Mesopotamia

Murder in Mesopotamia: A Hercule Poirot Mystery. By Agatha Christie. Black Dog & Leventhal, 284 pp., $12.

By Janice Harayda

Agatha Christie once cleaned ancient relics with cold cream while accompanying her second husband, an archaeologist, on a dig at Nineveh. The technique, she said, was excellent for “coaxing dirt out of crevices” without harming the artifacts.

Christie made that comment in her autobiography. But she also drew on her travels in Iraq for Murder in Mesopotamia, which involves the death of the wife of an archaeologist who is leading a dig at a site a day and a half’s journey from Baghdad. No one has any idea who might have killed the lovely Louise Leidner until the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot – who happens to be in the region — turns up at the house where the crew is staying and begins asking questions.

You could argue that the story that follows has all the faults for which critics have derided Christie – shallow characterizations, a surfeit of clues and so many plot twists that the ending seems to come out of the blue because the evidence points to everybody and nobody. But Christie’s defects were the flip side of her virtues. You tear through her novels because she has removed everything that would slow the pace or tempt you to linger, including psychological depth and ravishing descriptive passages. Amy Leatheran, the nurse who narrates Murder in Mesopotamia, warns:

“I think I’d better make it clear up front that there isn’t going to be any local color in this story. I don’t know anything about archaeology and I don’t know that I very much want to.”

That’s more of a boast than a fact, but Christie does give you a kind of Cliffs Notes to her physical and psychological landscape. Leatheran expected something grand from an Assyrian palace: “But would you believe it, there was nothing to see but mud! Dirty mud walls about two feet high – and that’s all there was to it.” Christie’s characterizations of people are just as skimpy and, at times, stereotypical. They spring from a view of “human nature” – a recurring phrase — that is more cynical than is fashionable in our age of “positive psychology.” A character in Murder in Mesopotamia says: “They seemed like a happy family – which is really surprising when one considers what human nature is!” That spirit is no less apparent in books that about Christie’s other detective, Miss Jane Marple.

But Christie’s observations about character can be surprisingly modern and astute. Poirot grounds his search for Louise Leidner’s killer in his belief that “the state of mind of a community is always directly due to the influence of the man at the top.” If this is an oversimplification, it is one that has become a pillar of 21st-century corporate management. And it helps to explain why Christie’s novels still appeal more than two decades after her death in 1976.

The plots may be far-fetched. But Christie’s novels reflect in simplified a form a sharp understanding of, if not human nature, human beings. Like Murder in Mesopotamia, they often have settings that provide a glamour or drama lacking in everyday life. No one who has read them can doubt the sincerity of a comment Christie makes in Agatha Christie: An Autobiography: “I always thought life exciting and I still do.”

Best line: A character says it wouldn’t be safe to tell any man the truth about his wife. He adds: “Funnily enough, I’d trust most women with the truth about their husbands. Women can accept the fact that a man is a rotter, a swindler, a drug-taker, a confirmed liar, and a general swine without batting an eyelash and without its impairing their affection for the brute in the least! Women are wonderful realists.”

Worst line: A doctor says that Amy Leatheran is “a woman of 35 of erect, confident bearing.” Leatheran describes herself as 32. It’s unclear whether the discrepancy is a mistake or meant to suggest that one character was unreliable witness.

Published: 1936 (first edition) www.agathachristie.com

Furthermore: The Black Dog & Leventhal imprint of Workman www.workman.com publishes attractive hardcover editions of Christie’s mysteries in an easy-on-the-eyes font at the unusually reasonable price of $12 per book. The titles in its series include Murder on the Orient Express, Murder at the Vicarage, The ABC Murders, A Murder Is Announced and A Caribbean Mystery.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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