One-Minute Book Reviews

August 9, 2011

By Jove! It’s the First Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery, ‘Whose Body?’

Filed under: Mysteries and Thrillers,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:58 pm
Tags: , , , ,

An aristocratic sleuth tries to learn the identity of a corpse in a London bathtub

Whose Body? The Singular Adventure of the Man With the Golden Pince-Nez. A Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery. By Dorothy Sayers. HarperPaperbacks, 212 pp., $7.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Anyone who has come away from the British phone-hacking scandal convinced of the ineptitude of Scotland Yard will find much to support that view in Dorothy Sayers’s first novel about the high-born amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. The dim Inspector Sugg reaches the crime scene first when a body clad only in gold-rimmed pince-nez turns up in the bathtub of a mild-mannered London architect. But Scotland Yard’s man on the spot fails to ask a pertinent question that occurs immediately to Wimsey, and he never retakes the lead from his rival.

As Sugg tries to catch up, Sayers serves up a plot in the style of her contemporary, Agatha Christie: She fires clues at you so rapidly that you hardly notice that they tend to come at the expense of plausibility – at least until the killer confesses to so much with so little provocation that it snaps the thin rubber band of logic holding the story together. Even then, a mystery remains: Why does the Oxford-educated Wimsey so often speak in solecisms like “ain’t” and “he don’t”?

Best line: No. 1: Lord Peter Wimsey says: “Even idiots occasionally speak the truth accidentally.” No. 2: “… Bunter had been carefully educated and knew that nothing is more vulgar than a careful avoidance of beginning a letter with the first person singular …”

Worst line: Wimsey says: “It’s awfully entertainin’ goin’ and pumpin’ him with stuff about a bazaar for church expenses, but when he’s so jolly pleased about it and that, I feel like a worm. … It ain’t my business.” It’s hard to reconcile this with the language of a man also given to quaint expressions like “By Jove!”

Published: 1923 (first edition), 1995 (HarperPaperbacks).

Read an excerpt from Whose Body? and more about the book.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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

August 4, 2008

Around the World in 80 Sleuths — A List of Crime-Solvers and Their Turf

Filed under: Mysteries and Thrillers — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:43 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Kerrie at the Mysteries in Paradise blog steered me to Jonathan Gibbs’s traveler-friendly post Around the World in 80 Sleuths in the Independent
www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/crime-fiction-around-the-world-in-80-sleuths-873660.html, which has thumbnail descriptions of 80 fictional crime-solvers and their haunts. The featured sleuths work in places that span the alphabet from roughly Amsterdam (Nicholas Freeling’s Inspector Piet Van der Valk in Because of Cats) to Ystad, Sweden (Henning Mankell’s Inspector Wallander in Faceless Killers). Kerrie covers additional ground on her unusually well-organized mystery blog paradise-mysteries.blogspot.com/, some of it in a recent review of R. N. Morris’s A Gentle Axe, set in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1866.

© 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

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
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

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.

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 373 other followers

%d bloggers like this: