One-Minute Book Reviews

February 25, 2010

2010 Delete Key Awards Finalist No. 5 – ‘Finger Lickin’ Fifteen’ by Janet Evanovich

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From Janet Evanovich’s novel Finger Lickin’ Fifteen (St. Martin’s):

“ ‘Nobody calls me pecker head and lives,’ Pecker said.”
Evanovich’s popular series about the bounty-hunter Stephanie Plum goes further south in Finger Lickin’ Fifteen, which abounds with jokes about body parts or functions described as “number two,” “cooter,” “pecker,” “wanger” or “winkie.” Another example appears below.

“‘Yep,’ Grandma said. ‘He’s got a big one. All them Turleys is hung like horses. … I tell you, for a little guy, he had a real good-sized wanger’.”

Read the full review of Finger Lickin’ Fifteen.

The Delete Key Awards finalists are being announced in random order, beginning with No. 10, but numbered for convenience. This is finalist No. 5. You can also read about the awards on Janice Harayda’s page (@janiceharayda) on Twitter. The winner and runners-up will be announced on March 15 on One-Minute Book Reviews and Twitter.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

 

October 20, 2009

Late Night With Jan Harayda – Why John Mortimer, Creator of Rumpole, Liked Representing Murderers Better Than People Who Were Divorcing

Emily Mortimer has a charming essay on her doting father John, the novelist who created Rumpole of the Bailey, in the October issue of Tatler. She says in part:

“I was brought up by a man who knew a lot of murderers and who considered many of them to be decent people. It is an education I am proud of. He always said that, in his days as a defense barrister, murderers were his favorite clients. This was partly because, unlike divorcing couples who were always ringing him up in the middle of the night and accusing each other of taking the toaster, murder suspects found it more difficult to get to a telephone. Also, he said, they had often got rid of the one person on earth who was really making their life hell, and a kind of peace had descended over them.”

August 16, 2009

7 Questions and Answers About Dan Brown’s New Book, ‘The Lost Symbol,’ His First Novel Since ‘The Da Vinci Code’

Filed under: News,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:17 pm
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Is it a conspiracy? Dan Brown has said little about the plot of The Lost Symbol, his first novel since The Da Vinci Code, which Doubleday will publish on Sept. 15. And while his publisher has been releasing cryptic teasers on Facebook and Twitter, these may read to the uninitiated like excerpts from a North Korean auto repair manual.

Here are some answers you don’t have to decode:

1. What is The Lost Symbol about?
The Lost Symbol brings back the fictional Harvard professor Robert Langdon, the protagonist of The Da Vinci Code, a thriller based on the premise that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a child whose descendants became kings and queens of France. Langdon again tangles with codes and secret societies – this time, in a plot that unfolds over a 12-hour period. He first appeared in Brown’s Angels & Demons.

The cover of the U.K. edition of "The Lost Symbol."

The cover of the British edition of The Lost Symbol shows, as the Belfast Telegraph described it, “a key surrounded by flames and bearing a Freemasonry symbol above Capitol Hill, suggesting the action will unfold in America’s seat of power.” The slightly different American cover – which also shows the Capitol Building – supports this idea.

2. What is the “lost symbol” in the title of Brown’s book?
The BBC News reported that the novel is “believed to focus on freemasonry, with the lost symbol of the title a reference to a ciphered pictogram in an ancient book called The Key of Solomon.”

3. What about Leonardo da Vinci? Will he have a role in The Lost Symbol?
Da Vinci or his legacy will have a substantial role unless Brown’s publisher has misled libraries. The electronic catalog at a consortium of New Jersey libraries says The Lost Symbol involves the following: “Leonardo, da Vinci, 1452–1519 – Manuscripts – Fiction – Cryptographers – Fiction. Mystery fiction.”

4. What else is known about Brown’s new book?
Other facts appear in the “codes, cryptic trivia, puzzles, secret history, maps” and more that Doubleday has been releasing on Brown’s Facebook page and the Twitter feed for The Lost Symbol. The publisher said on Twitter that “Robert Langdon’s next adversary will be revealed when http://www.facebook.com/DanBrown reaches 100,000 fans.” Brown had 67,686 fans on the afternoon of August 16.

5. What do you learn about The Lost Symbol on Facebook and Twitter?
Facebook member Mark Gray suggested that The Lost Symbol may involve explosive sexual tension and, to support this idea, posted a diagram of two Washington landmarks. “When the energetically (male) Washington Monument is positioned in front of the energetically (female) Capitol Dome an explosion of force is created,” he writes. He added, “An OBELISK is a male PHALLIC. A DOME is a female WOMB.”

A Facebook member named Buddy didn’t think much of the idea. Buddy told Mark: “You keep focusing on the phallus and vulva, but what do you think it means? Surely, this is not an answer. Why would you think those focused on spiritual symbolism and related philosophy would obsess about male and female organs? The effort is to affect the minds of many not magically conjure up some energy effect. What would be the purpose?”

On Twitter, The Lost Symbol has fewer followers (3,210) than Shaquille O’Neal (1,964,646) and Bon Jovi (22,685) but more than Molly Ringwald (93).

6. When can you buy The Lost Symbol?
Doubleday will publish print and electronic editions of the book on Sept. 15, 2009, in the U.S. and Great Britain. You can preorder from Amazon, Barnes and Noble or an independent bookseller that you find through the Indie Store Finder on IndieBound.

7. Are you going to review The Lost Symbol on One-Minute Book Reviews?
I couldn’t finish The Da Vinci Code, so I’m not going to buy The Lost Symbol. And I don’t accept review copies from publishers. But I give out the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books every year on March 15 and wouldn’t want to overlook a stellar candidate. So I’ve put my name on the waiting list for The Lost Symbol at my library. We’ll see if I get it before Malia Obama goes to college.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

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

July 27, 2009

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Janet Evanovich’s ‘Finger Lickin Fifteen’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
Finger Lickin’ Fifteen
By Janet Evanovich
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that would like to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

A celebrity chef is beheaded with a meat cleaver in the opening pages of Finger Lickin’ Fifteen, Janet Evanovich’s 15th crime novel about the Trenton-based bounty hunter Stephanie Plum.  After a co-worker witnesses the murder, Plum becomes drawn into the search for his killer, and her ex-boyfriend, the plainclothes policeman Joe Morelli, goes to work on the case. She also agrees to help her sometime romantic interest, Carlos “Ranger” Manoso, find out who has been breaking into properties protected by his security company. As novel builds toward the barbecue cook-off, the questions raised by the plot include: Can Morelli succeed in his dual quest to capture the chef’s killers and to recapture Plum’s heart?

Discussion questions:

1 Many novels fall clearly into a category such as mystery, romance, comedy, or adventure. Evanovich tries to combine all of those genres in one book. How well does she succeed?

2 Does Evanovich handle one genre better than others? If so, which genre seems to suit her skills best?

3 Some series give you a strong sense of place, a you-are-there feeling about the city or town where the action takes place, such as those about Robert Parker’s Spenser (Boston) and Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski (Chicago). How well did Evanovich evoke Trenton, NJ, in Finger Lickin Good? Did she give you the sense that you knew the city? How much does this matter?

4 Finger Lickin’ Fifteen has two parallel plots – one involving the murder of the Stanley Chipotle and another about the break-ins at the properties protected by Rangeman security. It has a third if you count Plum’s efforts to bring in the “skips” or FTAs (Failure to Appears) who haven’t shown up for court dates. Which  plot did you find most interesting or effective? Which was the least interesting or effective?

5 Often in a book with multiple storylines, the plots turn out to be related. You might expect, for example, that Stanley Chipotle’s murder would be linked to the break-ins at Rangeman properties. How, if at all, are the plots in Finger Lickin’ Five related?

6 This novel begins with a decapitation, a risky move given that it might remind people of the 2002 beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan and other terrorist acts. Where you able to step back mentally from any news stories you’ve read and view Finger Lickin’ Five as entertainment? Or was your reading affected by the headlines?

7 Some authors of long-running series allow their characters to age – not just by getting older but by making major changes in their lives. Evanovich hasn’t done this with Plum, who was 30 in One for the Money and seems to have changed little. The critic Marilyn Stasio wrote in a review of Eleven on Top, “Evanovich has kept Stephanie in a perpetual state of sexual arousal, poised between the attentions of Joe Morelli, the hot and hunky cop who has been pursuing her since high school, and Ranger, a coolly lethal mercenary.” What are the pros and cons this approach? Would the series be more satisfying or less so if Plum had changed more?

8 More than most mystery series, the Plum novels have predictable elements. In each book, for example, Plum’s Hungarian grandmother visits Stiva’s Funeral Home. Is the predictability an asset or liability? Has your view of this changed over the years?

9 Respected crime-novel critics, such as Sarah Weinman, have said that the quality of this series has been going down for years. A few reader-reviewers on Amazon.com (such as Jessica Connelly and A. Grund) argue that this has lost so much of its earlier appeal that it Evanovich should kill it. Do you agree or disagree? Why?

10 If you think Evanovich should continue the series, how could she strengthen it? Would you want to read a half dozen more books in which Plum is still torn between Morelli and Ranger?

Vital Statistics
Finger Lickin’ Fifteen. By Janet Evanovich. St. Martin’s, 308 pp., $27.95. Published June 2009.

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

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

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

February 15, 2009

Sue Grafton’s Last Kinsey Millhone Novel Will Be Called “‘Z’ Is for Zero”

Filed under: Mysteries and Thrillers,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:52 pm
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Sue Grafton's new book is her 20th about Kinsey Millhone.

More than a decade ago, Sue Grafton said that the title of her final Kinsey Millhone mystery would be “Z” is for Zero, ending the bestselling series that began in 1982 with “A” Is for Alibi. Or so André Bernard reported in his Now All We Need Is a Title: Famous Book Titles and How They Got That Way (Norton, 127 pp., $11, paperback).

I first wrote about Grafton’s plan for the last Kinsey Millhone mystery when I reviewed Bernard’s book for the Plain Dealer in 1995. And because Now All We Need Is a Title was widely reviewed, I thought her intention was well known, especially now that it’s turned up on Wikipedia.

But I found a surprising comment on the page for Grafton’s new “T” is for Trespass on the site Powell’s, the great Portland bookstore: “We don’t know what Z will be, except that it will be very, very good.” So consider this post a reminder: It’s “Z” is for Zero. But it comes with a warning: Grafton could get an idea for a novel about, say, a compulsive womanizer who meets a ghastly death involving his hyperactive zipper. Would you really want her to ignore that one so she could stick with “Z” is for Zero?

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

January 9, 2009

Adultery for Third-Graders — A Review of ‘What I Saw and How I Lied,’ Winner of the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

A tale of theft, blackmail, adultery, anti-Semitism and a possible murder, written at an 8-year-old reading level

What I Saw and How I Lied. By Judy Blundell. Scholastic, 284 pp., $16.99. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

What would you do if you were a publisher who knew that reading test scores were declining as children were seeing more sex and violent crimes in the media? Maybe play both sides against the middle as Scholastic has done with What I Saw and How I Lied, the winner of the 2008 National Book Award for young people’s literature.

This stylish literary thriller deals with subjects appropriate for the 13-to-18-year-old age range that the publisher recommends on its site — theft, blackmail, adultery, anti-Semitism and a possible murder. But Judy Blundell writes at a third-grade reading level in the novel, according to the readability statistics on Microsoft Word.

So who, exactly, is this book for? Much of the content is too mature for 8-year-olds. But the reading level is too low for the sophisticated adolescent and teenage girls likely gravitate to its glamorous, noir-ish cover, which shows a thin, beautiful model applying red lipstick. Blundell is condescending to them even if they enjoy its page-turner of a plot: Anyone who is ready for the subjects covered in this novel is also ready for a higher reading level.

Evie Spooner is 15 years old when her stepfather, Joe, returns from Austria in 1947, having overstayed the end of the war for murky reasons. Evie’s seductive mother has quit her job at Lord & Taylor – “Either that or get fired”— because veterans needed jobs. And she’s surprised her husband by learning to make Sunday suppers and perform other domestic tasks. “Son of a bitch,” Joe says of the change.

But the glow of the family reunion fades after Joe packs up the three of them for what he casts as an overdue Florida vacation. They settle into a Palm Beach hotel (aptly named Le Mirage), nearly deserted in the off-season. And Evie becomes swept up in a riptide of events that involves looted gold, a hurricane, an inquest into a possible homicide and her crush on a seductive 23-year-old who says he served with Joe overseas.

The plotting is tight and ingenious until an improbable last scene, and well-supported by details that evoke the era (including the chocolate cigarettes that Evie buys to “practice smoking”). And the book deals with larger issues than whether a murder occurred: What is loyalty? What do we owe the dead? Do truth and justice differ and, if so, how?

Questions like these appeal strongly to adolescents and teenagers, and this book could provide a framework for exploring them. As for their reading test scores: They’re not likely to improve if more publishers — encouraged by the National Book Award for this novel — put a senior prom dress on a third-grader’s soccer shorts.

Best line: A warning heard on the radio as a hurricane approaches Palm Beach: “Watch out for flying coconuts.”

Worst line: No. 1: “Our pipsqueak attorney had turned into a pretty decent linebacker.” It’s a stretch that a 15-year-old girl living in 1947 would know enough about linebackers to use the word in this way. No. 2: “Lana Turner was every man’s dream, sultry and blond. It was Lana filling out a sweater at a drugstore that got her a Hollywood contract.” That Turner was discovered at a drugstore is a myth. Even if the teenagers of 1947 believed the myth, the book is perpetuating this legend for a new generation of readers.

About the reading level: The reading level comes from the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics that are part of the spell-checker on any recent version of Microsoft Word. To find it, I entered a minimum of 300 words from each of the following two-page sections of What I Saw and How I Lied: pages 36-37 (Grade 4.2), pages 136-137 (Grade 2.6) and pages 236-237 (3.7). I also entered all of last two pages (Grade 3.0). The post “Does Mitch Albom Think He’s Jesus?” lists the reading levels of authors and tells how to use Word to find the level of a book.

Furthermore: What I Saw and How I Lied
won a 2008 National Book Award. The National Book Foundation.
has posted an excerpt from and the citation for the novel on its site.

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

October 13, 2008

Ghosts of Venice — Susan Hill’s Novella, ‘The Man in the Picture’

An 18th-century painting of masked revelers at the Grand Canal has sinister properties

The Man in the Picture: A Ghost Story. By Susan Hill. Overlook, 145 pp., $15.

By Janice Harayda

A Halloween-costume superstore has opened in my town and raised the frightening possibility that I will soon be the only person on the streets not dressed like Bigfoot or a tavern wench. I will defend to the death anyone’s sartorial-first-amendment right to don a Borat Lycra Mankini or a Sexy Ms. Mental Patient outfit (“includes shirt with vinyl restraints”).

But if you’re looking for another way to spend Halloween, why not read a ghost story? You might start with this intelligent new novella by the English author Susan Hill.

The Man in the Picture lacks the psychological complexity of Patrick McGrath’s neo-Gothic novels and Alison Lurie’s underrated short story collection, Women and Ghosts. But Hill’s book works on its own terms, which are those of a well-crafted Victorian ghost story. The opening lines set the tone:

“The story was told to me by my old tutor, Theo Parmitter, as we sat beside the fire in his college rooms one bitterly cold January night. There were still real fires in those days, the coals brought up by the servant in huge brass scuttles. I had traveled down from London to see my old friend, who was by then well into his eighties …”

The tale involves a painting that Theo bought at auction as a young man, an untitled 18th-century work showing masked revelers at a carnival in Venice. From several narrators we learn that that the picture has a chimerical effect: New people seem to keep appearing in it. The meaning of the changes begins to emerge when a countess summons Theo to her Yorkshire estate and links the painting to acts of sexual jealousy and revenge, an ill-fated honeymoon in Venice and the violent deaths of her husband and son. Lady Hawdon warns Theo that for his own good, he must sell her the painting. He doesn’t sell. Alas, poor Theo!

True to the conventions of Gothic novels, The Man in the Picture has shadowy hallways, long-buried secrets and odd noises in the night. It also includes a genteel psychopath whose mental instability appears contagious. Characters tend to stay conveniently out of range of pragmatists who could shout at crucial moments, “No! No! Don’t go into that empty room!”

By modern standards, much of the plot is no more rational than the idea that a priceless garnet would end up inside a Christmas goose in the Sherlock Holmes tale “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.” And it isn’t supposed to meet contemporary tests of plausibility. Like dressing up as tavern wench, it’s unabashed retro escapism, well suited to a month when you may hear mysterious sounds as you stumble through the darkened rooms of a haunted house.

Best line: “The faces of the revelers were many of them the classic Venetian, with prominent noses, the same faces that could be seen on Magi and angels, saints and popes, in the great paintings that filled Venice’s churches.”

Worst line: “She was extremely old, with the pale-parchment textured skin that goes with great age, a skin like the paper petals of dried Honesty.” The similie reaches for a higher tone than the rest of the book.

Recommendation? In the U.S. ghost stories have been so thoroughly absorbed into the horror-novel genre that, except in children’s fiction, few writers attempt them and readers tend to associate them with lumbering behemoths like Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers. The Man in the Picture gives Americans a chance to rediscover the appeal of these stories in a purer and in some ways more elegant form.

Because of its conversational tone and multiple narrators, this is also good book to read aloud, which you could probably do in less than two and a half hours. Book clubs might consider having members take turns reading this one aloud at a meeting instead of reading it in advance.

Published: October 2008 www.susan-hill.com/

Second opinion: Salley Vickers observed perceptively the Independent: “As with many successful ghost stories – The Turn of the Screw comes to mind – the form of the book is a re-telling; indeed, a series of re-tellings. Hill knows that the sinister is enhanced by obliqueness. By giving us a chain of raconteurs, she skilfully conveys the ambience in which the uncanny survives via rumour and report.”

Furthermore: Hill also wrote two mystery novels about Chief Inspector Simon Serailler and The Woman in Black www.thewomaninblack.com/, the theatrical version of which opened in 1989 in London’s West End and is one of its longest-running shows.

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

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

September 30, 2008

The Body in the Outhouse — Kate Summerscale’s ‘The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher,’ the Winner of Britain’s Highest Award for Nonfiction, Reads Like Detective Novel

The Road Hill murder caught the eye of Charles Dickens and other novelists.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective. By Kate Summerscale. Illustrated. Walker, 360 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Anyone who has slogged through some of the grimmer winners of the Man Booker Prize may look more kindly on British judges after reading this admirable winner of the U.K.’s highest award for nonfiction.

In The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, Kate Summerscale uses the conventions of the detective novel to tell the true story of the murder of a three-year-old boy whose body turned up in the servants’ privy of an English country house in the summer of 1860. And the device works remarkably well despite a few red herrings and questions that have eluded answers for more than a century.

All good writers try to give their books a healthy pace that often depends partly on suspense, but Summerscale goes beyond that. She has structured her book like an old-fashioned detective novel that includes clues hidden in plain sight and a startling twist in the final pages that casts the story in a new light just when you think you understand it.

The murder of young Saville Kent took place at Road Hill House, a 19-room Georgian dwelling in Wiltshire owned by Samuel Kent, a government sub-inspector of factories. On the night the child died, the elder Kent was home along with his pregnant second wife (the former family governess), four children from his first marriage and two from his second, and three-live in female servants. The evidence suggested overwhelmingly that one of those people killed the boy found in an outhouse with his throat slashed.

But there was no obvious motive for the crime, and the stymied local police sought help from Scotland Yard, which sent Detective-Inspector Jonathan “Jack” Whicher to Road Hill. Whicher quickly become convinced that he knew who killed Saville, but in trying to prove it ran up against obstacles than included a public scorn for his work, rooted partly in mid-Victorian notions of social class and family privacy. He found no vindication until five years later when the killer confessed. Some questions about the murder remain unanswered, notwithstanding a mysterious letter from Australia that arrived decades after his death and purported to set the record straight.

Summerscale may overplay the effect the notorious murder had the development of the detective novel, which might have evolved as it did regardless, but this doesn’t undermine her achievement. “This was the original country-hour mystery,” she writes, “a case in which the investigator needed to find not a person but a person’s hidden self.” Her careful mapping of that quest would make this book interesting even if the case had not influenced Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone and Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Modern crime stories – whether fiction or nonfiction – often reduce murderers’ motives to pop-psychological clichés that are absurdly inadequate to the savagery of the acts committed. By going back nearly a century and a half — before detectives had access to the temptations to facile analysis offered by Freud and Dr. Phil — Summerscale reminds us how much more there may be to it than that.

Best line: Whicher once captured a swindler “who had conned a London saddler out of a gun case, an artist out of two enamel paintings, and an ornithologist out of 18 humming bird skins.”

Worst line: “One evening Saville’s then nursemaid, Emma Sparks, put the boy to bed, as usual, in a pair of knitted socks.” The meaning of “then nursemaid” is clear, but the construction of the phrase is newspaperese.

Reading group guide: A Totally Unathorized Reading Group Guide to The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Sept. 30, 2008, in the post that directly preceded this one.

Published: April 2008 You can download the first chapter for free at www.mrwhicher.com.

Read interview with Kate Summerscale on Bookslut www.bookslut.com/features/2008_09_013387.php

Furthermore: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher won the 2008 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction from the BBC www.thesamueljohnsonprize.co.uk/. Summerscale is a former literary editor of the Daily Telegraph.

If you like 19th-century true crime, you might also enjoy Manhunt: The Twelve-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer www.jameslswanson.com.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. One-Minute Book reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

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

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