Category Archives: Crime/Mysteries

The Soul of Discretion, by Susan Hill

So, I had an interesting experience while reading this book, and the seven that come before it, during a binge-reading episode during November and December, in that I read it at the same time that I caught up on the Peter Grant/Rivers of London/The Folly series by Ben Aaronovitch. They’re two such very different series – not just in that one is urban fantasy and one is realist crime (although that’s not even a remotely complete description), but also that the writing styles are so radically different that it took me quite a while to bring my brain from one to the other. When I read the Aaronovitch series, I came away with the feeling that this would make a fantastic modern episodic television show (in fact, it has been optioned not that that’s any sort of a guarantee of anything), with its continuity and plot arcs as well as character arcs; when I read the Hill series, I came away with the feeling that this would in no way make a good arced television show, but would make a great character development mystery show, with the focus on character development instead of plot continuity.

 

It’s not that Hill lacks plot, I hasten to add.  There is definitely plot. But it’s less of the storyboard, this happens so then this happens kind of plot, and more of the things happen and this is what they tell us kind of plot. You can pick up any one of the Simon Serrailler books and not be lost – what happens with the mystery in one book doesn’t necessarily carry over to another (with one exception). What does carry over are the character events – children, marriages, promotions, moves, deaths. And because the timeframe of the books – both within each book and between the books in the series, months and years pass – it’s like catching up with friends that you don’t see very often (and who aren’t on Facebook).

 

What really sets Susan Hill’s series apart from other series that I’ve read is her focus on thematic continuity within each book, rather than plot progression. Each book features any number of point-of-view characters, not just Simon Serrailler, and some of them may not ever even interact with Simon or play a part in the central crime that’s being investigated. But every single section, every single POV character, reflects whatever the central theme of the book is.  It’s actually a bit jarring if you’re used to more traditionally structured series, at least until you get used to it.

 

The Soul of Discretion is the most recent novel in the Simon Serrailler series. The theme of this one is sex, particularly problematic sex. Simon’s assigned to a dangerous undercover operation, sent to infiltrate a pedophile ring that features the great and the not-so-good – MPs and Lords and other public figures. His girlfriend has just moved in with him, the first woman who’s ever had such a permanent presence in his apartment, and he’s having a harder time than expected dealing with the fact that his sanctuary is being shared. (Simon’s history with and treatment of women is a running concern of his triplet Cat, and in this book she works with Rachel to help her establish a life outside of Simon.) Cat herself, a constant in these books, is still struggling with her idealism toward the medical profession as it conflicts with the reality of the bureaucracy of the NHS – but it’s their father Richard, who’s been physically abusive toward his second wife in previous volumes, who demonstrates the theme when he rapes a fellow Mason’s wife at a party, shining an incredibly harsh spotlight on the treatment of women in rape cases (spoiler: she’s not treated well, by Richard (obviously), her own husband, or the system).

 

It’s a troubling book overall, because the theme is so troubling (the details of the pedophile ring are somewhat glossed over, but their extent and nature isn’t, and the rape certainly isn’t), but it is mesmerising. I don’t think I like Susan Hill very much as a person, but she can definitely write.

 

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Broken Homes, by Ben Aaronovitch

This is the fourth in the Rivers of London/Peter Grant/The Folly series. Now you may remember that I really enjoyed the first book and, in fact, suggested that it might make a good episodic television show. Nothing in the second, third, or fourth books has changed my mind about that. If anything, my feeling that this would be a good television series has been reinforced, both by reading this series and by reading the Simon Serrailler series by Susan Hill.

 

Each of Aaronovitch’s books is an episode, with an individual plot that is resolved by the end of that book, but which also gives more hints and progression about the overarching story. Broken Homes focuses on a council estate/apartment block which has been specifically designed to accentuate magic. We’ve got some new characters, and new focuses. There’s the now-deceased architect who was a secret practitioner and the dryad who inhabits the council estate’s garden (although it’s spring, so she’s a bit….distracted), for example. Characters from previous books are here as well – the Rivers, and Lesley, and of course Nightingale; there are hints throughout that lead up to the Faceless Man (although the ending comes as a surprise even so), leaving a trail of breadcrumbs that not only lead Peter and Lesley through to the revelations about the council estate, but also lead to the latest piece in the Faceless Man mystery.

 

I don’t know if Ben Aaronovitch has a set number of books that he’s intending to write in this series; I can easily see the first six or so being the battle against the Faceless Man (I haven’t read Foxglove Summer yet, but I can’t picture it being the last one – it doesn’t feel quite ramped up enough yet – but then I could be entirely wrong about that) and then moving on to another arc and another backstory. I sincerely hope he does – I’ve gotten to really care about Peter and Lesley and Nightingale and Molly, and I want to see what further quirks this magical sub-culture throws up toward urban London life.

 

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Wings of Fire, by Charles Todd

Is it bad that this is the second in a series and I haven’t read the first one yet? My mom says no, and I certainly didn’t have any problems understanding the character or the plot. Also, slight disclaimer, my aunt has met Charles Todd, a mother-son writing team who live near her. (I haven’t, though.)

The detective in the series is one Ian Rutledge, a veteran of the recent Great War who suffers from shell-shock and a seemingly permanent mental companion – the voice of an executed Scottish soldier who provides constant commentary on Rutledge’s thoughts and actions.

Wings of Fire starts with a prologue that establishes the potential crime(s) and most of the relevant individuals. When the story proper begins, Rutledge is sent down to Cornwall to investigate the probably-not-suspicious deaths of three siblings. One of the siblings was a renowned poet, and it’s her poetry that eventually triggers Rutledge’s ideas of what’s happened.

Apart from a few dialogue tics (“Get on with it, man!”) and some understandable yet frustrating character motivations (next paragraph), it’s a compelling book. I opened it on my Kindle-for-PC app and just sat there, reading, for a few hours until I’d finished. I am, apparently, fascinated by cold case/family secret stories, and that is what this is from the very beginning.

The one thing that did make me want to slap a character upside the head was Rachel’s attitude to the Scotland Yard investigation. It’s explained, and it’s understandable, but seriously: you ASKED Scotland Yard to come. Did you really think that they’d come and NOT ask questions? Argh.

Apart from that, Rachel was sweet and I could see why Rutledge started falling for her. Susannah was a bit of a cipher, but Rachel was mostly lovely. Olivia was very well-done, too – for someone who died before the book even started, she was a very well-realised character with enough ambiguity to make suspicions reasonable.

And that’s another thing that Charles Todd did well: Olivia’s poetry. It’s described as amazing, powerful, life-changing, every superlative you can find, and the excerpts we’re given actually live up to that – something very difficult to do. It made me feel like the poems actually did exist outside the book, and made me want to read them. Good for Charles Todd.

I will definitely go back and read the first book in the Rutledge series, and, while I probably won’t push to read all new books on publication day, I certainly won’t pass them up when they come my way.

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The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt

I ran across this book as part of the Morning News’s Tournament of Books. I really enjoy following their tournament every spring, but since I’m not in the US, March Madness sometimes sneaks up on me. This year I was lucky in that Wil Wheaton, who I follow consistently online, was one of the first-round judges, so I knew exactly when it started. His round was this book against State of Wonder.

He really didn’t like State of Wonder. I can understand why, of course, and he was right that he’s not the target audience for it. He also really, really loved this book. So I thought, “okay, that’s one recommendation right there…..if I run across it, maybe I’ll give it a try.” It ended up winning the Tournament, and then I saw that it had won the Man Booker Prize in 2011, and then it was on sale at Waterstones. It was inevitable.

It’s a Western, in setting and tone, but like the best books do, it doesn’t limit itself to the themes of its genre. It’s about two brothers, gunslingers, on a job to kill a prospector in California. It’s about the demands of loyalty to family and to employer and to morality. It’s about recognising the social structures of the time and your part in creating or maintaining them. And it’s about the discovery that what you’ve done all your life isn’t what you want to be.

Where it particularly excels is in the actual language. Westerns for decades have had a particular voice – a weird combination of completely simple and completely high-flown. It’s hard to maintain without seeming foolish, but deWitt pulls it off. Eli isn’t the most intelligent or educated man, but he’s not stupid, and he’s well-meaning. He recognises the way the world works, and his part in the badness of it, and does what he can to make amends. He can never do a lot, but he does what he can, and he tries to temper Charlie’s excesses as much as he can.

It’s an incredible journey, not just geographically, but emotionally as Eli finds their way of life more and more untenable, while Charlie continues to find exhilaration in the extremes. Ultimately, they completely change places, with Eli becoming the leader and Charlie sinking into submission.

It’s not a book for everyone (what book is?) but it’s fast, and clear, and intriguing. Read the judges’ analyses on Tournament of Books, and then decide for yourself.

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Murder on the Orient Express

I don’t know, but I would guess that this is Agatha Christie’s most famous book. The Wikipedia article lists a string of allusions to it in other works, and at least four dramatisations of it. Raymond Chandler used it (although without naming it) as an example of how not to write a murder mystery (like he would know! …. oh, wait.) (Sidenote: I’ve never read Raymond Chandler, other than skimming that essay and then getting annoyed at his attack on Agatha Christie. What should I start with?) And I’ve been going through an Agatha Christie phase for the last few weeks – we watched an episode of Poirot over Christmas (The Clocks) and since then I’ve wanted to go on a Christie-reading binge, as well as watching versions of her works: Witness for the Prosecution, a number of other episodes of Poirot (whatever I can get my hands on, really), and the all-star film version of Murder on the Orient Express.

One of the Poirot episodes I watched was also Murder on the Orient Express, and by sort-of coincidence I watched it fairly soon after watching the 1974 film version.  I was worried that I’d spend the whole time comparing the two, but I didn’t. I was very impressed by how differently they treated exactly the same material. Oh, sure, they made changes to the book (documented in Wikipedia, among other places – I won’t go into them here). But what interested me the most was how differently Albert Finney (1974) and David Suchet (2010) played Poirot, without many (if any) of the words changing.

A lot of that is because of the framing structure for each film. In the 1974 feature release, the film starts with the background for the case – the Armstrong kidnapping. It is a blatant, obvious, deliberate comparison to the Lindbergh kidnapping, with Colonel Armstrong even being a near lookalike of Charles Lindbergh. This film is much more about the case, about the puzzle. Not that Poirot isn’t important, but character development is not a factor – plot is. As such, a lot of time is spent establishing the suspects in the beginning – watching them all get on the train – and with the interrogations.

The Poirot episode, though, becomes almost entirely about Poirot. It starts with Poirot doing his classic explanatory accusation for an unnamed case – but this time one of the suspects shoots himself in front of everybody. This rattles Poirot, and he starts to wonder if his methods are still worth using. Not the methods he uses to solve the case, of course, because he still gets the right answers, but his methods of revealing the culprits. This is continued when he witnesses the stoning of a pregnant, unwed woman in Istanbul – bringing up issues of local/cultural justice versus absolute justice. The themes of redemption and justice are very much on Poirot’s mind as he boards the train.

All the details of the interrogations and the case are the same (mostly – again, Wikipedia has some of the variations) but the focus is not on the case itself. Instead, almost everything points to the themes of redemption and justice. Does justice provide redemption? Can you redeem yourself without justice being served? And whose responsibility is it to provide justice and redemption? What happens if the systems to provide justice and redemption fail to do so?

It was fascinating for me to watch such two different performances, and to see how the editing and script choices, and the framing scenes, made the exact same story turn into such very different films. The ending is still the same, the result is still the same, but in the 2010 episode of Poirot, Poirot is such a very different character by the end – he’s doubting everything about what he does and what he stands for. In the film, there is no doubt – Poirot is just doing what he does best, solving a mystery.

They’re both well worth watching, and my craving for Agatha Christie hasn’t faded yet….

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In the Presence of the Enemy and With No One As Witness, by Elizabeth George

I am always taken aback when I remember that Elizabeth George is American. She seems (to my American but Anglophilic mind) very tuned in to British speech patterns, class structures, and cultures. This is important in the Lynley series (for lack of a better name), because it’s incredibly multi-cultural, multi-class, and British.

Take, for example, In the Presence of the Enemy. The mystery itself (the kidnapping of a MP’s daughter) is incredibly grounded in British politics – not necessarily contemporary British politics in a way that would make it seem dated in just a couple of months (although the IRA does merit a mention) – but in the way British politics work. The main conflict (apart from, you know, the kidnapping) is the relationship between politicians and the press: how very biased (and proudly so) certain newspapers are, the way that issues that have nothing to do with policy can bring down a career or a Government. It’s particularly resonant now, as the fallout from the Murdoch/News of the World scandal continues. The newspapers in the book may not have tapped people’s phones or knowingly interfered with a police investigation (that still makes me so sick, in real life), but they don’t see their subjects as human, and personal considerations are not given as much weight as trying to promote scandal (the more sex-related, the better).

The devastating part of In the Presence of the Enemy is the resolution of the case. The kidnapper/murderer is caught, of course, but the whole thing was based around a misunderstanding and a lie. It’s so incredibly unnecessary, and pathetic in its delusion. It also brings me back to one of my main tenets in life: You are not doing something FOR someone when they have NEVER ASKED YOU TO DO IT. Don’t break up with your girlfriend “for” someone. Don’t change yourself “for” someone. And for the love of God, DO NOT KIDNAP AND MURDER SOMEONE “FOR” SOMEONE ELSE.

 

With No One As Witness is just as devastating, but while the case is horrific and sad (serial killings of primarily mixed-race boys), the truly heartbreaking part has nothing to do with the case: it’s the shooting of Lynley’s wife. Elizabeth George does an absolutely amazing job of portraying Lynley’s devastation, heartbreak, and paralysis in the face of catastrophe. He has to make an impossible choice, and you just know that he’ll never completely recover from it. And Havers and Nkata are partially there with him, not knowing what to do with themselves or for him, but also knowing that the case has to be solved, that the rest of the world isn’t put on hold. And the case is solved, Havers saves the day, but nothing will ever be right again.

 

I have two more Elizabeth George books on my shelves: A Great Deliverance, which is the first Lynley book, and Careless in Red, the follow-on from With No One As Witness. (It’s not the next one in that world; that’s What Came Before He Shot Her, which follows the 12-year-old shooter in the days leading up to it, and which I should probably read at some point since one of the secondary characters is named Kendra, but right now I don’t want him to be humanised, I just want to mourn for Helen. Yes, I know she is fictional. Shut up. Anyway, Careless in Red is the next one to feature Lynley.) I have read most of the others at various points in my life, but sometime (possibly soon) I’ll want to reread most of them to remember the personal backstories of everyone, beyond the recaps that are so smoothly incorporated for new readers.

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The Woman in Black, by Susan Hill

I’ve been intrigued by The Woman in Black for a few years, since my sister saw it staged in London and then almost ran screaming from the book in a bookstore several weeks later. (I should probably clarify that she’d loved it, but it freaked her out so much that even weeks later, she couldn’t face the idea of experiencing it again. This is not an unusual state for either of us. Ask us about The Birds sometime.)

Anyway, I had never read it or seen it, and it intrigued me. Every time I was in London, though, there was something else that I’d wanted to see more, and it wasn’t a huge priority on my TBR list, either. It was there, but it wasn’t at the top. I had gotten as far as downloading an “Old Time Radio” podcast from the 40s or 50s or something that was called “The Woman in Black” – but it had nothing to do with the Susan Hill story. This weekend, I came across a copy in the charity shop where I volunteer, so I picked it up and read it that afternoon in the park (finishing it, coincidentally, approximately thirty seconds before my sister called).

She was right. It’s freaky.

It’s a mystery/suspense story, and not very long – it only took me an hour and a bit to read. I found the first couple of chapters a bit confusing with the timeline and tenses of the narrator, but the first couple of chapters are little more than introduction and lulling the reader into security anyway. Because it’s a mystery/suspense story, I’m not going to say too much about the plot – the reveal adds a lot to the suspense. It leaves a lot unsaid, especially the motivation of the antagonist. I understood why some of the things happened, but not others.

It is supremely creepy, however. It’s the perfect kind of story to read – or read aloud – on a dark, possibly stormy night. If I had read it at, say, Halloween, when I was alone in the house and watching scary movies anyway, I doubt I would have fallen asleep. I would have been imagining the sounds of the story and expecting something to come out of the Dolphin Paradise. I can’t praise enough the atmosphere of the story. After the slight confusion of the first few chapters, I was ready to dismiss it as overblown or possibly something that owed more to the staging and performances than to the story itself. But no – even lying in a sunny park, I could feel the tension and terror of an isolated house in the fens, the companionship of the dog, the sadness at the backstory.

I don’t know if it’s a book that Everyone Should Read or anything, but if you’re in the mood for something freaky and scary, it’s definitely a recommendation of mine.

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