ex libris reviews
1 February 2005
It was at such times that he was almost inclined to envy his wife's
first husband, a business friend named Elmer Ford, who had perished
suddenly of an apoplectic seizure; and the pity which he generally
felt for the deceased tended to shift its focus.
Last month I committed and egregious error--I published Craig Clarke's reviews as if they were my own. It's an easy mistake--I deleted just one line of boilerplate, and the headline "What Craig's Been Reading Recently" got left out. My apologies to Craig, and to everyone else; if you go back to last month's issue, you'll find everything probably attributed.
Still no reviews from Deb; I shall soon commence to show signs of withdrawal.
In this book we find Peter Lovesey's irascible yet big-hearted detective, Peter Diamond, in an amusing yet silly book that's a cross between a police procedural and a puzzle mystery from the golden age of Christie, Allingham, and Marsh. It concerns a small literary group that meets periodically in the crypt of the church of St. Michael with St. Paul in the city of Bath to discuss murder mysteries--or, as they prefer to say, "crime fiction." The group's name is "The Bloodhounds of Bath", and its members are a delightful group of eccentrics.
There's the snobbish and very proper Miss Chilmark, whose ancestors have lived in the vicinity of Bath for five-hundred years, and who believes that Eco's The Name of the Rose is the pinnacle of the art. There's Milo, an older bachelor of the tweedy variety, who delights in the puzzle mystery. There's Jessica the art gallery owner, who specializes in female investigators. There's Rupert the repulsive, a decayed intellectual who delights in stirring things up and claims the group should read nothing but true crime. There's quiet Sid, a John Dickson Carr fan, who suffers from painful shyness and comes to the group on the advice of his therapist. And finally there's Shirley-Ann, newcomer to the group and to Bath, who has read almost every mystery ever published and has them all on-tap in her head.
And then a famous stamp is stolen from a Bath museum...and then reappears under mysterious circumstances. Clearly, it's time for the Bloodhounds to figure whodunnit. And then one of the Bloodhounds is murdered--and the body is found in a locked room. There's only one key, and its owner has an iron-clad alibi--he was at the police station throughout the time in question, and he had the key with him.
And in steps Peter Diamond, in best police-procedural fashion, to catch the murderer, and the conventions begin to run together a bit.... And if you think Lovesey had a lot of fun blending the two styles together, you're right. In fact, I'd been a little disappointed by the ending; but now that I think about it, given the problem Lovesey set himself the murderer could have been no one else. Nice, very nice.
In the first Peter Diamond mystery, The Last Detective, Diamond ends the book in grand style by resigning from the Bath CID. He spends a fair amount of time unemployed and underemployed until this book, when the Bath CID needs him again. It seems that a guy Diamond put away for murder has escaped from prison and kidnapped the Chief Constable's daughter, and the only one he'll talk to is Diamond himself. He claims to be innocent of the murder, and he wants Diamond to prove it. The CID is interested only in capturing the guy before the Chief Constable's daughter is hurt, and they want Diamond to sweet-talk him; they have no intention of re-opening the case.
But Diamond's an honest man; that's why the escapee is willing to work with him. And though it seemed like an open-and-shut case at the time, and still seems like one now, if Diamond says he'll look into it, look into it he will, whatever the top brass say. And as he's still a civilian, they can't stop him....
The average Lovesey novel has some delightful twists, turns, and surprises, and this one is no exception; though, honestly, I'd kind of like to see a novel in which Peter Diamond isn't going it mostly alone.
On ourpage, I give him the tagline "diamonds, not so rough"; I sometimes wonder if "red herring monger" would be more precise. But be that as it may.
I first encountered Lovesey's books shortly before this book came out, and I confess it stopped me in my tracks; it's only recently that I've begun reading his Peter Diamond novels again. And all this without my even reading it, mind you; just reading the flyleaf was enough to put me off. Why? In this book, Peter Diamond loses his beloved wife Steph. Although she hasn't had a major part in any of the books, she's had a persistent and important role in all of them--she's Diamond's anchor, his prop and stay, the thing that keeps him from going nuts, his island of peace. And in this book, she dies...and Diamond has to deal with it.
I hate that.
Having read the flyleaf I put the book back on the shelf and said, "Well, I think I'll wait for the paperback of this one...and maybe even longer than that." I hadn't even read enough of the flyleaf to find out how Steph dies; just the bare fact was sufficient.
And for quite a while, the only Peter Diamond books I saw on the shelves were this one and some I already had. About a month ago, though, I found two others nestled on the bookstore shelf next to this one, and decided that it was time to bite the bullet and get on with it, especially since I could begin with the other two books. I didn't know at the time whether they were written before or after Diamond Dust, and it didn't matter; it was all insulation.
You've perhaps noticed that I haven't said much about what's in the book, or how Steph dies, and I'm not going to. I'll just say that parts of it were indeed painful to read; Steph's death is a bad thing, bad for Diamond, and bad for us, and knowing that, I'd guess, Lovesey doesn't rub our noses in it. He portrays Diamond's grief simply and poignantly without wallowing in it.
The mystery that follows is as intricate and surprising as anything else of Lovesey's I've read, with red herrings galore, and I found the ending perfectly satisfying--which was yet another surprise.
But I rather suspect that if I'd tried to read it when it first came out, I'd have had more trouble. Living with the fact of Steph's death for a couple of years lent me some needed distance.
It might seem odd that I'd get so worked up over a mystery series, and indeed I've probably overstated my dismay. It wasn't heartbreak that caused me to put this book back on the shelf a couple of years ago, it was the wish to spare myself an unpleasant read. But either way, it's a tribute to Lovesey's skill.
This is not a Blandings novel. There are no pigs. There is no Earl of Emsworth. There is no Beech the Butler. There is no Lady Constance... well, then again, there's sort of a Lady Constance, though she's the Earl's daughter rather than his sister. And there are imposters, and heaven knows Blandings just isn't Blandings without imposters. And though it's a stamp rather than a pig, heaven knows there's a McGuffin that's just ripe for being stolen, if only one of the guests was a former safecracker. But the Earl's not an idiot; he's merely impoverished. And his offspring aren't idiots either; the only idiot isn't even a member of the family.
In fact, Wodehouse has taken the established conventions for Blandings novels and turned most of them on their heads, and produced a really quite delightful confection that satisfies the same craving as do Lord Emsworth, the Empress of Blandings, and so forth, and yet in a delightfully different way.
I'm just itching to go into great detail about all the things Wodehouse does differently than usual in this book, but that would mean giving them away, and we can't have that. So if you're a Wodehouse fan, you'll just have to go out and find a copy.
And if you've never read Wodehouse, why on earth are you wasting your time with me when you could be discovering Wodehouse?
The first time I read this book, the first in Drake's Lieutenant Leary series, I suggested that Drake was channeling With the Lightnings I had my eyes open. But more of that anon.--he of Honor Harrington fame. By the time I'd finished the second book in the series I'd gotten the clue. Drake wasn't trying to out-Weber Weber, he was doing an homage to 's Aubrey/Maturin novels. There were just too many parallels for it to be by accident, and so when I set out to re-read
For those coming in late, the Lieutenant Leary series is pure military space opera. Daniel Leary is a Lieutenant in the Royal Cinnabaran Navy; the Empire of Cinnabar is one of two leading powers in the human-explored galaxy. He's come to the planet Kostroma as part of a diplomatic mission to the new ruler of Kostroma, but he has no particular duties; he was chosen only because he's the son of Corder Leary, one of the most powerful men in the Empire, and someone thought the Kostromans would be impressed by that. In fact, Leary hasn't spoken to his father since some years prior, when they fell out over his joining the RCN. Since then he's been scraping along, trying to get ship duty. Now he's got it, and he's bound and determined to enjoy it as much as he can.
Meanwhile, Adele Mundy has accepted a position as librarian to the ruler of Kostroma; the fellow wants to be accepted as a patron of learning, so he began his rule by looting every other library in the capital. Mundy's a post-graduate of the Academy on Bryce, and is extremely accomplished at winnowing, categorizing, cataloging, and above all retrieving data--whether she's supposed to have access to it or not. She's a Cinnabarran citizen--a member of one of the great Cinnabaran families, just as Daniel Leary is--but hasn't been back to Cinnabar in sixteen years, when the bulk of her family was put to death in the aftermath of a failed coup, by order of Daniel's father. Later it came out that the Alliance was behind the coup; the Alliance is the other major power in the galaxy. Adele's parents and baby-sister were among the dead, leaving her with a kind of pox-on-both-their-houses attitude toward both Cinnabar and the Alliance.
Daniel and Adele meet under uncomfortable circumstances, and surprisingly become friends. This is just a few days before the Alliance foments an uprising on Kostroma--and by chance Daniel is the only RCN officer left at large after the first hours. He's got a chance to save the day, and given the kind of book this is, you just know he's going to pull it off; it's time to sit back and enjoy the ride.
As I say, I was looking for the Aubrey and Maturin parallels this time through, and I found one that's just plain silly. Probably the best known scene in all of O'Brian's work is in the very first book, Master and Commander. And it's the best known because it's the scene that's most likely to cause first-time readers to put the book down and stop reading O'Brian forever. It's Stephen Maturin's first time aboard Jack Aubrey's new command, the sloop Sophy, and Jack has requested a midshipman to give Stephen a tour of the rigging. And Stephen is afraid of heights. What follows is, when read in the right spirit, a remarkably funny scene composed of two monologues--the midshipman reciting the names of all of the parts of each mast, and the different sails, and so on and so forth, in exacting detail, ad infinitum ad nauseum, and Stephen not listening because he's so worried about falling to the deck and killing himself, while yet trying to make the appropriate responses. Really, you shouldn't pay any more attention to the rigging than Stephen does, and then you'll get through the passage OK. But people always try to make sense of it, and then they fall out of the book. Pity.
Shortly before the uprising begins it's Founder's Day on Kostroma, when they celebrate the first landing on the planet. There's quite a spectacular parade, and Leary has figured out that they best place to sit and watch is on the roof of the ruler's palace--provided that one has binocular goggles to look through. And so Leary waltzes into the palace library and then waltzes Adele Mundy up to the roof to watch the parade. He nonchalantly walks down the tile roof (a 30 degree slope) to the very edge, where he can rest his feet in the rain gutter; while Adele makes her slow and painful way down to him backwards on her hands and knees, she being (natch) afraid of heights. And as she's coming slowly down the roof, Leary begins a long disquisition about what it's like to be out on the hull of a starship during a passage between systems, and what all the different parts are, and did I mention that in Drake's universe the starships have masts and sails? There's no reason for him to be talking about it at that particular point in the story, except to counterpoint Adele's internal monologue about what she'd look like after she hit the pavement.
It's all quite silly, and I had a good time re-reading it.
This is the second of Drake's Daniel Leary/Adele Mundy series, and though I enjoyed it well enough on second reading, I found that it dragged a bit. A ripping yarn, yes, but a bit slow to get going. The general outlines of the plot are similar to the previous book; Leary is sent to a nominally friendly place where the Alliance is secretly busy, and Leary saves the day with a big win against great odds due to equal parts of luck, talent, skill, and bullheaded determination. There's a fair amount of political intrigue that goes on toward the beginning, resulting in a surprising zoological discovery on Leary's part that I expect will have long term repercussions as the series progresses; but on the other hand, it had little enough to do with the present story.
So, good fun; but Drake can do better.
The is the latest in Drake's Daniel Leary/Adele Mundy series of space operas, and I have mixed feelings about it.
In the wake of Lieutenant Leary Commanding, Cinnabar and the Alliance have signed a peace treaty, with all that that entails for junior naval officers. Things are tight all round, and even so famous a hero as Leary isn't sure of getting a ship. But just because a treaty's been signed, that doesn't mean that the Alliance is sleeping; and Cinnabaran Intelligence never sleeps. A number of interests come together: A wealthy but eccentric couple from the planet of Novy Sverdlovsk wish to explore the Galactic North, a region of loosely federated, mostly primitive systems nominally friendly to Cinnabar. Supposedly they are travelling for pleasure, to indulge their interests in archaeology and big game hunting; actually, they are looking for signs of a man named John Tsetzes, one time dictator of Novy Sverdlovsk, who upon his overthrow a century before was known to have fled to the North with a number of planetary treasures. Meanwhile, Bernis Sand, head of Cinnabaran Intelligence, wants to get a skilled observer into the Galactic North, to look for signs of Alliance activity. There have been reports that the Alliance has begun building a base in the system of Radiance, and she wants the straight dope. Adele Mundy is her agent of choice.
Leary is in need of a command. The Klimovs are in need of a ship. Bernis Sand is in need of a spy. And the Princess Cecile is being sold out of the service. Leary finds himself the civilian captain of the Cecile, under contract to the Klimovs, to a place where Cinnabaran officers have but rarely gone.
It's an interesting story, with the usual smash-bang ending; my complaint is that large parts of it were too pat. For example, once they arrive in the Galactic North and begin searching in earnest they just happen to find a relic of John Tsetzes in the first house they enter on the first planet they visit, and thereafter track his steps in the most unlikely way, with nary a misstep or red herring or backtrack.
Still, it was quite a good read, and I'll certainly get the next Lt. Leary, should there be one.
My brother gave me this book for Christmas, and he's probably been wondering when I was going to get around to reading it and reviewing it. I actually finished it over a week ago, but the reviews have been lagging.
The Soddit, subtitled "or, Let's Cash In Again", is a remarkably funny parody of 's The Hobbit. I say "remarkably" because parody is a form that backfires more often than not, and the likelihood of failure increases with the length of the world. At 343 pages, The Soddit is considerably longer than its nearest neighbor, Harvard Lampoon's Bored of the Rings, and it's also considerably funnier. Roberts somehow manages to stand every well-known scene on its head, and still come up with a fairly coherent narrative. When you're done, you've actually read a complete story, one with great similarities to Tolkien's work, but a genuine story in its own right as well. And it's funny, too, which as I say is remarkable.
I won't give any of the jokes away, much though I'd like to. I'll just say that Roberts appears to be aiming for something halfway betweenand , and if he doesn't quite hit the bullseye he's still to be commended for hitting the target at all.
Read it yourself; or buy a copy for your favorite Tolkien fan. They'll like it, if their sense of humor is in working order; and if they don't at least you'll have the fun of watching them fume.
Here's another remarkably funny book. It's a mystery novel, and a remarkably odd one at that.
Fair disclosure: the author sent me a free copy of this book, otherwise I'd never have picked it up in a million years. I accepted his offer with some apprehension, because this is a book that comes from the Christian Ghetto. There's quite a lot of fiction written from an explicitly Christian world view, published by explicitly Christian publishers for sale by explicitly Christian bookstores. I don't tend to read it, even though I'm a Christian; the little that has come to my attention (I'm thinking of the Left Behind series) hasn't been to my taste, and being a bit of a snob I've always felt that it was any good it would be sold in regular bookstores anyway (as Lewis and Tolkien and Walker are (Hi, Lars!)).
So I accepted this book rather against my better judgement, and rather put off reading it after it arrived in the mail. I was terribly afraid that it would be incompetently written, or so terribly, terribly earnest about the Christian faith that I'd find it uncomfortable reading. Please note: the Christian faith is indeed worth being terribly, terribly earnest about. But I find that fiction needs a lighter touch.
Anyway, I needn't have worried, and I'm actually a little ashamed of being such a snob, because I enjoyed Bye Bye Bertie immensely. Subtitled "A Joe LaFlam Mystery", it's a well-done farce. Joe LaFlam is a Christian private eye by day, a taxi driver by night, and a complete nutcase almost all of the time. He suffers, if that's the word I'm after, from a nearly continuous hard-boiled internal monologue about the state of his soul, his desire to be married, and his life as a private eye in the rainy town of Seattle, Washington, and sometimes his monologue spills over onto the people he meets. This generally causes them some confusion, because he in fact lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.
In the current tale (the first, and so far, I believe, the only one), Joe is approached by a beautiful young Christian woman; her sister has been kidnapped by a group of druids who are demanding $200,000 or they'll sacrifice her to their druidical divinity. Being, in his own mind, the gallant Christian knight, he undertakes to deliver the ransom--and then attempt to capture the kidnappers. Nothing goes as he plans, of course, and he ends up getting arrested by the police for rummaging suspiciously in trash cans; and the next day...
But I don't want to tell you the whole story, because that would spoil it.
The only thing that prevents me from recommending this book whole-heartedly is that it was written to be read by folks from a very specific Christian subculture, and if you aren't familiar with that background the book might seem very alien indeed, and you might have trouble telling when Dewhurst is being serious and when he's being over-the-top. The fact is, he's being over-the-top silly most of the time; like me, he's a man who needs to handle serious things with lightly.
And he does, indeed, speak of serious things. Joe's internal narrative reveals him to be a total nutcase, as I've said, Christian or not; but if Joe's capacity for self-delusion about the quality of his spiritual life is funny, it's also all-too familiar. My own internal monologues aren't nearly as purple as Joe's, but I've wrestled with lots of the same issues, and I've probably fooled myself just as often.
Well, maybe not that often. But often enough. At least--
Well, anyway, Dewhurst's written a book that even the secular humanists in my audience might enjoy. Just remember that it's a comedy, that it's over-the-top and exaggerated, and that it's not a life-portrait of those Red State voters you've been hearing about, as tempting as it might be to think otherwise. And even though your Borders or B&N might not have it, Amazon does.
Craig Clarke reviewed this book in Ex Libris Reviews last month, causing me to reflect. I reflected that although I'd heard of Nick and Nora Charles, I'd never read a book or seen a movie in which they appeared. I reflected that although I'd heard of Dashiell Hammett, I'd never read anything by him. And I reflected that I'd been completely unaware that Hammett was responsible for Nick and Nora Charles, having associated him with mean streets and gumshoes and Humphrey Bogart. Clearly this was something to look into, and so I procured a copy of The Thin Man forthwith. And I read it.
And I enjoyed it.
But good grief, fish don't drink as much as these folks. It's like some witty, urbane game of quarters. You get home from the theater: take a drink. Some one comes to your hotel room: Take a drink. Your visitor takes a drink: take a drink. You get up in the morning: take a drink. Someone gets murdered: take a drink. Go out to a speakeasy patronized by underworld types: take a drink for each one. But sip them slowly, because the speakeasy's liquor is lousy. You're feeling a little tight: take a drink. You're not feeling tight enough: take a drink. Make a witty non-answer to an impertinent question: take a drink. Hear yet another all-too-plausible tale from Mimi Jorgenson that you don't believe: take two drinks.
It's all well-written, mind you; and it's fascinating to watch Nick's behavior change as he gets drunk. He doesn't get loud angry drunk; he doesn't slur his words or get sentimental, or any of the other cliched drunken behaviors; but there's a definite sense that the inhibitions are lifting, that he's not watching himself so carefully, that he might be saying a little more, saying it just a little louder, that he might not care quite as much about consequences.
The other characterizations are good, too. I especially enjoyed disliking Mimi Jorgenson, one of the most poisonous, duplicitous female characters I've ever come across. The only character I can compare her too is the lady in the movie The Maltese Falcon. Go figure.
Some time I'm going to have to re-read this to figure out just how Hammett did it.
by Craig Clarke
Road to Perdition
CSI: Double Dealer
CSI: Sin City
In connection with the Hard Case Crime books I've been reading lately, I was introduced to an author by the name of Max Allan Collins through a reprint of his entitled Two for the Money. It consists of Collins' first two published novels, which are unnecessarily terrific for having been written by a supposed beginner. If that's not enough reason to hate him, he's also amazingly prolific, with his hand in historical mysteries, graphic novels, and movie/TV tie-ins all at the same time. Over the last thirty years, he has published over 80 full-length narrative works. That's lucky for me, though, because it means there is plenty of material for me to read from this new Favorite Author.
Two for the Money's two books star professional thief Nolan. Bait Money and Blood Money are so intertwined in their subject matter (and timeline) that Collins wanted them published together. Bait Money definitely falls into the popular "last big heist" genre, with Nolan 48 and wanting to retire, but being blackmailed into performing one final job to pay off an old debt. Collins also taps into the familiar "old blood/young blood" motif by having the blackmailer make Nolan work with the heist planner's nephew, Jon. Blood Money picks up following the heist and its inevitable consequences.
The story is interesting enough, but what keeps the book(s) fresh is the characterizations. Nolan is an everyman who is surprisingly easy to identify with. He knows how to handle himself in violent situations, but he'd really rather not have to. And Jon is a comics buff (an area with which Collins is strikingly familiar, having written the comic strip Dick Tracy from 1978 to 1993, in addition to the abovementioned graphic novel work).
Also interesting is Collins' time-jumping technique of having news delivered by telephone to one character and then backing up to show the events leading to the telephone call from the other end of the line. He also adds useful tidbits of information (like how having high blood pressure makes a gunshot victim more likely to die from it) and showcases the unheralded victim of a gunfight: the guy who has to clean up the mess.
After reading Two for the Money, I jumped right into the novelization of Road to Perdition. I had not liked the film starring Tom Hanks and Paul Newman, but I thought that an author of this skill deserved a chance on his own merits. Oddly enough, having written the source graphic novel, Collins was forced to use the changes the scriptwriter made from Collins' own material in his novelization, making this book somewhat different in tone from the original.
"Angel of Death" Michael Sullivan is the chief enforcer for crime boss John Rooney and they share a father and son-type relationship. When Sullivan's own son Michael, Jr., witnesses a hit done by Sullivan and Rooney's jealous (and possibly crazy) son Connor, Connor decides to protect his interests by having the boy killed. A mistaken identity leaves only the two Michaels alive and Sullivan sets out for revenge, with son in tow, by hitting them where it will hurt the most.
A combination crime thriller, period piece, revenge treatise, and coming-of-age novel, Road to Perdition satisfies on all levels. As young Michael becomes aware of his father's work, he learns the skills needed to do it properly, becoming a man and tightening their relationship in the process. Through this, the reader learns that even a hired killer loves his family. Collins' sensitivity towards family within these lurid surroundings exhibit his incomparable skill at hiding his literary (and historical) sensibility within familiar genre trappings. Max Allan Collins is one author whose works are both fun and good for you.
However, sometimes one just wants to read a bit of fluff (as readers of this review are no doubt familiar) and my recent TV confection is CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. This formulaic series combines mystery with science and engaging characters to come up with dependable entertainment hour after hour. "Formulaic" is generally used negatively, but in this case it breeds familiarity, so that I know what I'm getting into each and every episode. Very much like British comedies (that even use the same jokes over and over), the set-up, investigation, and solution discovery (with the inevitable Grissom bon mot ending) are expected and necessary aspects of the fun.
Max Allan Collins knows this and he does not veer from the expected in his tie-in novel series. He's a perfect match for this work, writing as he does intelligent, detail-oriented, and fast-paced mysteries for the most part. His previous experience writing in the voices of already-extant characters serves well in making every line read as if it came from the mouths of the actors. And these are not episode novelizations, but original plots, making the feat all the more admirable.
The only drawback of reading the early novels like Double Dealer and Sin City is that they were based on information from the first series only, thus making it a little confusing for someone coming in off having watched the most recent episodes with all the recent events, relationships, and promotions that apply thereto (a necessary evil when writing novels based on an ongoing series).
I hesitate to reveal too much about the plot, but series fans will love how Collins follows the normal procedure of a typical episode. In addition, he adds his own brand of humor, particularly in the form of in-jokes during an interrogation in a video store. (He not only name-drops his own innovative DVD Real Time: Siege at Lucas Street Market -- which I heartily recommend in its own right -- but also a classic from a lead cast member's past.)
Satisfying reads all around, Double Dealer and Sin City enhance the CSI mythology without having to go outside the expected realm, and leaves plenty of room for further development, making it perfect for fans, but also approachable for the uninitiated. (Of course, this metafiction-loving reviewer would be tickled pink to see the worlds collide by having these novels adapted into future CSI movies.)
The only unfortunate step on this path came in the form of a collection of short stories Collins wrote with his wife, Barbara Collins, called Murder--His and Hers. To keep this as painless as possible, her stories are awful, theirs together are undependable, and even his are less than expected. The only saving graces come in the form of his "Inconvenience Store," in which a pregnant private eye gets caught in the midst of a convenience store robbery gone wrong (this was the source material for the abovementioned Real Time movie), and their "A Cruise to Forget," which borrows heavily from Roald Dahl. Unfortunately, at the price this book is selling for ($24.95), it is hard to recommend it based on these alone.
Despite this, however, I am still reading Max Allan Collins' books (I may just skip his short stories in the meantime). He has an easy skill with words that makes reading fun, and he really knows his way around a convoluted plot, my favorite kind.
Have any comments? Want to recommend a book or two? Think Will's seriously missed the point and needs to be corrected? Like to correspond with one of the reviewers? Write to us and let us know what you think! You can find the e-mail addresses of most of our reviewers on our Ex Libris Staff page.