Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs

Oh, Maisie Dobbs! Where do I begin? I read the first novel in Jacqueline Winspear’s mystery series about an investigator-slash-pyschologist in inter-war London over one gorgeous day on my balcony. I think I put it down, a couple times, for meals.

The first novel in the series, titled simply Maisie Dobbs, follows Maisie as she opens her detective agency in London and struggles to find clients. With help from her benevolent former employers (along the lines of Downton Abbey’s Lord Granthom), she soon finds work on a number of minor cases. One of these cases forces Maisie to look at her own past, and to uncover the wounds World War I has left on her and on so many former soldiers from England, including the son of her former boss, Lady Rowan Compton.

Maisie Dobbs isn’t a mystery novel in the strictest sense of the term, because there is so much here that has to do with Maisie’s personal development, and with the changes to British society during the wars, rather than with the investigations she is hired to carry out. In making the novel as much about culture and loss and moving past personal histories, though, Winspear gives us something so much more valuable than a simple whodunnit: a novel that takes its central mystery as a way to consider World War I and its lasting impact on soldiers and society as a whole.

As the novel opens, Maisie is hired by a man who believes his wife is cheating on him. In following his wife, Maisie stumbles over a larger mystery: that of how a retreat for wounded soldiers is being run, and why several men living at the retreat have died in the past years. In addressing this mystery Winspear relies heavily on coincidence, and there’s an air of Nancy Drew here as Maisie tools around in Lady Compton’s “smart crimson motor car”, but watching Maisie and her assistant, Billy, work to learn the truth behind this retreat is a pleasure.

The middle third of the novel is devoted to Maisie’s past. It’s here that the novel loses some steam, but also where Maisie’s character – and the characters of those she works with and has lived with – are developed. After her mother dies, Maisie has to work as a maid in the home of Lady Compton. After her employer discovers Maisie’s thirst for learning, she is supported in her studies and as she goes to university. Not long after the outbreak of war, though, Maisie leaves school to train to be a Red Cross nurse. In the course of things, she falls in love with a doctor, Simon; it’s this story that shapes Maisie’s own, including her interest in investigating the soldiers’ retreat. Although her tone is often light, Winspear does an admirable job of coloring the war for her readers, particularly the ways that war overlaps with the daily lives of those still living at home. Before she decides to train as a nurse, for example, Maisie is passing through a train station:

The station was a melee of khaki, ambulances, red crosses, and pain. Trains brought wounded to be taken to the London hospitals, nurses scurried back and forth, orderlies led walking wounded to waiting ambulances, and young, new spit-and-polished soldiers looked white-faced at those embarking.

Despite its faults as a mystery novel (namely, that no reader could hope to solve the mystery before Maisie herself does), Maisie Dobbs is a total pleasure of a novel, beach reading for the person who wants something some depth in their reading. Watching Maisie move through London ten years after the war is enthralling, as is watching her work through her memories in the course of her work. It is real fun to trip in Maisie’s shadow as she works not only to solve the central mystery, but to find some closure for her own memories and wounds (physical and otherwise) of the war.


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Review: Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River

Dennis Lehane’s novels may be shelved in the crime section, but what you begin to sense as you read his fiction is that many of his overarching concerns – in family, in community, and in how people use these things to define themselves and their decisions – would be at home in the “literary fiction” genre. To point this out isn’t to suggest that literary fiction is “better” than crime novels, but rather to say that Lehane is an extraordinary writer producing works that are at once accessible, plot-driven, and thought-provoking.

Mystic River is his best novel to date. Hand this one to anyone who speaks about genre fiction with their nose in the air and you’ll have a convert to the world of mass market paperbacks. Mystic River is as well-plotted as any of Lehane’s Kenzie & Gennaro detective novels, but because he follows his three main characters from youth he is able to explore more deeply those issues of community that have appeared in his other works.

Mystic River opens in 1975, with three friends who will in time be divided by community (who’s from the Point? who’s from the Flats?), differences of personality, and what happens when one of them, Dave Boyle, gets into a car driven by “policemen” who are in fact child molesters. After Dave escapes his captors, we leave them until 2000. All three remain in Boston: Dave, married with a child; Sean, a police officer separated from his wife; and Jimmy, an ex-con whose daughter is murdered the same night Dave comes home to his wife covered in blood, claiming to have been mugged.

Lehane’s narrative loops us back in history, pointing to the ways long-ago events (not just the day Dave got into the car when the other two boys wouldn’t, but Jimmy’s two-year sentence for robbery and what got him there) color seemingly unrelated moments in the present. Near novel’s end Jimmy reflects on the karmic nature of his daughter’s death, how her seemingly random murder can in some way be viewed as the only natural response to something Jimmy did shortly after his long-ago release from prison.

Lehane’s skill lies not only in carefully plotting so that these loopings through time and history read as naturally as actual events, but in fully exploring his characters’ motivations and the ways they’ve been formed. There’s Dave, who initially seems not greatly affected by his molestation as an eleven-year-old, but who, as novel progresses, reveals himself to be a scarred and flawed man seeking some form of redemption; Sean, who is unable to let go of his pride to find a way to get back the wife who left him a year earlier, and who has to investigate the lives of two childhood friends; and Jimmy, whose grief over his daughter’s death is coupled with a desire for some revenge, as well as a redemption for his community.

After Jimmy’s daughter, Katie, is found murdered after a night out, the police speak to Dave Boyle only because he happened to be in one of the bars she visited with her friends. Long before Jimmy begins to suspect that Dave was involved in Katie’s murder, Lehane reveals the ways Dave’s seeing Katie is painful, somehow wrong, to Jimmy:

It was this knowledge – that someone other than Jimmy possessed an image of Katie that postdated Jimmy’s own – that had finally allowed him to weep in the first place. (263)

Although we see Jimmy’s grief for his daughter, it’s the married couples that gain most of Lehane’s attention, and where we see the most powerful relationships taking place. Jimmy and Annabeth compare themselves to Dave and his wife, Celeste; they are able to mark themselves as different, better, than the other couple, because of the strength of their belief in one another.

No character in Mystic River is entirely clean or free of blame in either Katie’s death or Dave Boyle’s story. Lehane explores their degrees of guilt without judgement, and while the characters pass judgement on one another there is little temptation for the reader to do the same. Lehane writes, as ever, about deeply flawed individuals who are trying to somehow better themselves and their worlds. Lehane suggests, at the same moment, that there is little possibility of his characters escaping their pasts and their communities, and that these ties and faults are what make them worth knowing.


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Review: Alex Garland’s The Beach

On the level of a thriller-crime-utopiagonewrong novel, Alex Garland’s The Beach is an unqualified success. Opening with the arrival of its main character, Richard, on Khao San Road (“backpacker land”), Garland’s novel has an unstoppable energy, the sort that overwhelms your need for sleep, food, or bathroom breaks. Given a map to an island far off the tourist track by “Daffy Duck,” a man who commits suicide the morning after Richard’s arrival in the hostel they both stay at, Richard heads out for the island with a couple also staying on Khao San Road. When they find the island it turns out to be covered by a marijuana plantation and its guards; but there is also a lagoon holding a utopia of former travelers drawn by a desire to stop seeing place after place felled by tourism.

Richard, Françoise and Ètienne are unusual in that they’ve been led to this lagoon by a map. New residents are typically brought in by older residents who have found them suitable – if maps get out, the lagoon will stop being what it is and become just one more beach mentioned in a Lonely Planet travel guide. Run by Sal, the camp works because everyone has their role as fisherman, gardener, cook or carpenter (apart from one, Jed, who works alone and whose job is unknown for most of the novel), and because there are no maps floating around the tourist towns. Richard has given a map out, though; fearing that the island wouldn’t exist, wanting his friends to be a part of his experience if it did exist, he left a hand-drawn map with some of his acquaintances before setting out for the beach that has taken on an air of the otherworldly in backpacker lore.

This secluded beach, of course, can’t remain secluded; Garland suggests that it is, at end, just like so many other hidden retreats that in time are turned into places for tourists to hit, not a tourist trap so much as a place that has lost its purity. It’s unnerving, fascinating, to watch what happens to the people living communally on the beach as they are forced to face how they relate to the rest of the world and how they remain separate. Things are forced into motion when Jed and Richard, on a “Rice Run,” overhear travelers talking about the beach and making plans to find it. Richard is responsible for this break in secrecy, having been the one to draw the map the travelers have, and though Jed doesn’t reveal Richard’s role in this he does request that Richard be reassigned to work with him, watching for new arrivals to the beach.

The Beach works best when Garland focuses on the day-to-day of Richard’s life. There are enough odd elements here – the marijuana plantation and its guards, the cave tunnels he must swim through to exit the lagoon, the air pockets he finds himself trapped in on his first journey out from under the rock, jumping through a waterfall to land on the level of the beach – that Garland doesn’t need too much “action” to keep the story interesting. Its progression, from the beach as a protected place to what seems the inevitable collapse of the commune if word gets out, is natural, making its way without hurry. The fear the inhabitants of the beach feel when they think about others learning of their island is palpable and fascinating. Richard hallucinates that the dead “Daffy Duck” is with him at times, and that his suicide can be linked back to his claustrophobic worldview, in which nothing can remain pure forever:

‘If I had a part in destroying the beach, I did it unwittingly. You did it on purpose.’

‘Who says I destroyed this place? Not me, pal. Not from where I’m standing.’ He glanced at his crossed legs. ‘Sitting.’

‘Who was it then?’

Mister Duck shrugged. ‘No one. Stop looking for some big crime, Rich. You have to see, with these places, with all these places, you can’t protect them. We thought you could, but we were wrong. I realized it when Jed arrived. The word was out, somehow out, and after that it was just a matter of time…Not that I acted on it at first. I waited, hoping he was a one-off, I guess. But then the Swedes arrived and I knew for sure. Cancer back, no cure, malignant as fuck…’ He stood up, dusted the earth off his legs, and flicked his bark zero into the waterfall pool. ‘Terminal.’ (379)

Garland at time stretches himself too far in attempting to draw some parallel between Richard’s hallucinogenic experiences on the beach and in protecting the beach, and the Vietnam War. Garland has character occasionally toss off Vietnam-era vocabulary and acronyms, and it never feels quite right; he leaves the reader with some sketch of a “bigger” novel commenting on the ways these films shape and alter worldviews, but never weaves this into the story enough that it can take hold.

Read as a slow-building thriller, The Beach is a nearly perfect book, so much so that Garland’s half-hearted efforts to infuse it with the feel of Vietnam-era films are forgivable.

Mystery Showdown: Sue Grafton vs. Elizabeth George

A few days after reading this Book Bench piece about fiction that sells, I wound up in the Peace Corps office library waiting to see the doctor. In the best tradition of vowing not to take home any new books from the library I’d brought one with me, but I spotted a few Sue Grafton books and, curious about this “other world” of fiction that the author of The Book Bench piece refers to with such a doubtful tone, I picked up “A” is for Alibi and read the first hundred pages that day while wandering around Skopje.

I was surprised by how much I liked the book, and Grafton’s private detective Kinsey Millhone. “A” is for Alibi doesn’t land in the Dennis Lehane camp of crime fiction, but Grafton’s prose is tight and Millhone’s voice is clear and sharp and at times even reminded me of Mattie Ross from Charles Portis’s True Grit. Elements of the plot are far-fetched and the timing often seems too coincidental, as when Millhone is on the phone with a woman she’s going to interview when the woman is shot; or when Millhone goes to the woman’s house to see what happened and gets out just before the police arrive. But still, there’s the voice, which Grafton gets so absolutely right that I was willing to ignore plotting faults that otherwise would have stopped me finishing the novel, let alone looking forward to reading the next, “B” is for Burglar. (And the titles, god, the titles are lame – but again, I liked the first book enough that I can’t get worked up over this. Any shame I might have had to be seen reading Grafton vanished about a chapter into “A” is for Alibi, and I flaunted this book all over the city and in front of volunteers who will probably forever look down on me for my reading choices.)

The other mystery that I just finished, Elizabeth George’s Missing Joseph, was a long, hard slog, not comparable to the few days I spent reading Grafton’s novel. This is probably the fourth or fifth book I’ve read by George, and the second time I’ve felt let down by her writing. The mystery in Missing Joseph is peripheral, with George spending most of the novel’s 550 pages following Lynley and Helen, St. James and Deborah, a bunch of townsfolk and a bunch of tween girls around their personal lives. George’s interest here, as in What Came Before He Shot Her, slips from the mystery to the personal, to ways of parenting and the social services system, and it’s a mistake for her to shift her attention in this manner. For one, readers come to George expecting a mystery; for two, George’s skill doesn’t lie so much in character development as it does in plotting. As much as I praised the fullness of her characters in the first few of her mysteries, I can’t praise her now that she devotes so many more pages to them. What George did well before, what she fails to do here, is to show that her characters continue to have personal lives in spite of their work (with the exception of Barbara Havers, who has no personal life apart from caring for her parents and being described for her frumpiness and lack of sex appeal – a topic for another day) but to keep the focus on the work. The mystery in Missing Joseph is lame and cobbled together, and comes so late in the novel that I can’t even describe it to you, other than to say that a vicar dies of poisoning, the poisoning is declared accidental, and that this turns out to be subordinate to the bigger mystery George will toss in towards novel’s end, to be miraculously unraveled by Lynley and St. James while Havers mostly cleans out the refrigerator in her old house and makes a couple of phone calls.

Not that I’m in the habit of placing authors in competition with one another, but this round with George was so lackluster (it took me months to finish Missing Joseph, and only an intense desire to get the book out of my house finally pushed me through) that I’m going to give her a break in favor of more Grafton.

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#fridayreads: Dennis Lehane

One of my favorite new (to me) book blogs, Picky Girl, is doing a new meme, #Fridayreads take me away. I’m pretty much reading solely for escapism right now so can’t claim that the books I read on the weekends are any different from my Monday – Thursday books, but still….

I’ve been going through a big Dennis Lehane thing lately. I read A Drink Before the War in late February, then took a respectable break – but I’ve been sick, with lots of time to lay around reading, and in the past week or so have put away Darkness, Take My Hand, Sacred, and Gone, Baby, Gone. The last was my “fridayread” for this week, only it’s halfway through the day and I just finished it, so I guess I’ll be moving on to the fifth book in his Kenzie/Gennaro series, Prayers for Rain.

At some point I’ll probably do a real post on Lehane, an improvement over the review I did of A Drink Before the War. For now, I can’t say a whole lot except that it feels good to remember the way it feels to discover an author with a healthy backlist, to fall into the lives of characters who I know I’ll be able to read about for two more books. Lulu over at What Book Today? is pretty crushing in her appraisal of the focus on the personal lives of Kenzie and Gennaro in the latest installment in this series, Moonlight Mile, but for now it’s something I’m enjoying. Lehane is great at character development, and the occasional glimpses into their private lives adds something to the books – it makes it easier to understand why Kenzie and Gennaro treat their work or certain classes of criminals the way they do.

Besides the character development, my god, Lehane pulls off the gore well. Darkness, Take My Hand has a serial killer torturing and butchering his victims, then leaving little bits of them scattered around, like when Kenzie finds a pair of eyeballs in his kitchen cupboard. I didn’t like Sacred as much as that second book (it would be hard to match it) but again, Lehane has this skill for characters who are almost out of this world in terms of their moral views, but who I believe in absolutely. He casts his net wide, too, and it’s alternately fun and disturbing to see the way those in power (politicians, the rich, the police) influence or mastermind the crimes Kenzie and Gennaro investigate.

I’m telling myself now that I’m going to read the Orange Prize nominee White Woman on the Green Bicycle next, but let’s face it – it’s going to be Lehane’s Prayers for Rain. I want to delay reading any more of these novels to make them last longer, but now that I’ve fallen prey to Lehane it is really, really hard to find my way out.

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Review: Dennis Lehane’s A Drink Before the War

A Drink Before the War, my second Lehane read and his first novel, has me convinced that the hype surrounding him is true: along with George Pelecanos and Richard Price, Dennis Lehane is not just one of the best American writers of crime fiction but one of the best American writers we have today, period.

A Drink Before the War is the first novel featuring the private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, best known for their roles in Gone, Baby, Gone. Kenzie and Gennaro are hired by a group of Boston politicians for a seemingly simple “find-and-a-phone-call” case. A cleaning woman, Jenna Angeline, has vanished along with some documents, and Kenzie is to find her so the politicians can recover the documents. He does this easily enough, but is swayed by Angeline to hold off on the phone call until she’s shown him one of the “documents” she stole: a photograph of one of the politicians in a hotel room with a pimp.

Angeline turns out to be not as much of an outsider as Kenzie was led to believe by the politicians. This is not a cleaning woman who made off with some documents by sheer chance; she knows the men in the photograph, and can guess what they might do to get these photographs back. The simple case that Kenzie signed up for becomes part of something larger – a full-scale gang war – and Lehane draws his narrative so carefully that not a line reads false.

The reason I’m so into Lehane is that it’s not just the plotting he’s good at; it’s his style, his characterizations, the voice he creates for Kenzie, everything. Kenzie describes one of the politicians, Brian Paulson, by his handshake: “He waited until Mulkern sat back down before he did, and I wondered if he’d asked permission before he sweated all over my palm too” (5). One of the men, a former client, who helps them track down Jenna Angeline: “Billy, like a lot of people who work in Western Union offices, looks like he just got out of detox” (47).

And Boston is as much a character, with Kenzie’s Dorchester background informing his view of the city. Of Wickham, Kenzie notes: “The streets are the color of a shoe bottom, and the only way to tell the difference between the bars and the homes is to look for the neon signs in the windows” (55). When he’s trying to get rid of a tail: “By the boathouse, I saw a group of BU or Emerson students, stuck in the city for the summer, passing around a bottle of wine. Wild kids. Probably had some brie and crackers in their backpacks, too” (51).

I don’t want to say that Lehane surpasses genre conventions, because just to say that is to suggest that genre writing is inherently “worse” than literary fiction (whatever I mean by that term). What he does do is bring together what I like most about crime fiction and literary writing: tight plotting, a unique voice, a current of humor running beneath the novel as a whole, a character who views the world as his world, who never seems an outsider to the action around him. If you haven’t read Lehane, read him. If you’ve read some Lehane, read everything you haven’t read. If you’ve read everything by Lehane, I don’t know, reread it all while I play catch-up. This guy is good.

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Review: Elizabeth George’s Well-Schooled in Murder

Back around August of 2009, when I was but a young lass preparing to head off on my great world-changing adventure as a Peace Corps Volunteer (ha, ha, ha), it occurred to me that I wouldn’t be in the mood for reading Nabokov or James Joyce or Tolstoy for great portions of this adventure, at least the parts spent on an airplane. So I asked my mom what I should read, and she told me to buy something by Elizabeth George for my kindle. I did (her first book, A Great Deliverance), and I thought it was pretty alright but it faded quickly into the back of my mind. I can know recall only vague details, like that Inspector Lynley is in love with a woman who doesn’t love him back, that he sleeps with some lady who winds up being involved in the murder they’re investigating (though I forget in what capacity, so this isn’t exactly a spoiler), and that he has an ongoing battle with his lower-class co-worker, Sergeant Barbara Havers.

I recently picked up another one of George’s books from the Peace Corps library. Well, actually I picked up a few, and not having bothered to check publication dates, I’m jumping out of order now. I just finished the third book in her Lynley series, Well-Schooled in Murder, and…holy crap! I feel kind of like I did when I was eight and had just discovered Nancy Drew and figured out how many books had been printed about her.

I really, really liked Well-Schooled in Murder, and this sort of blind enthusiasm is probably going to set the tone for this “review.” When this book opens Lynley and Havers have been working together for about 18 months, so their working relationship is more fun (less painful) to read about. There are still some cringe-inducing scenes that take place at Havers’s home, where she lives with her ailing parents, but they seem to be fewer than I remember, or the rest of the book just balances out these scenes.

The mystery revolves around the discovery of the body of a boy, Matthew Whateley, in a churchyard far from either the private school he attends (Bredgar Chambers) or his hometown. Whateley was at the school as a scholarship student, and this and other facts of his family history send Lynley and Havers in all directions when trying to solve his murder. Everything that happened to Whateley is tied up in the school’s culture, questions of honor and integrity and honesty, and of friendship and sponsorship.

I couldn’t help comparing Well-Schooled in Murder to the only other mystery I’ve read recently, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Played with Fire. George’s book was far better than Larsson’s, and much of this is due to descriptive writing. Sometimes when I step back and look at it I think, “holy crap, she just spent half a page describing the seating arrangements in a room,” but when reading these things never catch up to me. George’s depth of description is necessary to what she’s doing as a writer, and it’s often characters’ verbal tics or slight motions that reveal something of their own involvement in the case. I’ve read some great blog entries recently picking apart Larsson’s style and showing what a good editor could have done with his work, and that was in my mind when reading George. When she writes something – that someone had a hard day, say – she backs it up by showing what exactly about their day was difficult. I think Larsson would leave it at the original statement. (I can’t find the link to the blog entry on Larsson I’m talking about – if you know which one I’m thinking of, I would love the link.)

I’m going on a trip to Egypt, Jordan and Israel next month (hooray! vacation! hooray!) and I’m planning to bring another George mystery along to read. Having just read her Wikipedia page, though, I have to admit I’m surprised to learn she’s an American writer. How does she manage to write in such depth about English culture and traditions? Is this a hint that I should spend some more time googling her and figuring out exactly how she wound up writing mysteries about the upper-class Eton graduate Inspector Lynley?

And any suggestions for other mystery writers I might be into?