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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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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Book Reviews, Briefly

I don’t know how exactly, because I’ve been putting in some more hours at school and with the family and also watching a lot of Gilmore Girls and handwashing my clothes and baking bread and occasionallky going for a walk, but I’ve been reading a lot lately. I would probably die if I tried to write a blog post about every book I’ve read in the past month or so (and you would die of boredom), but I want to give these books some attention because a few I really liked.

Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire was awesome. Back in college I was just as skilled a bullshitter as I am today, and in one of my lower periods (my sophomore year) I took some stupid classes, including Witchcraft & Magic. The entire football team (minus its star, Ray Rice) was taking this course, and I spent most of my time doodling on my legal pad, telling the football players to shut up, and sneaking out for bathroom breaks. I also watched a few vampire films for a paper, and I’m pretty sure I spent most of Interview with the Vampire sitting on my friend’s floor clutching a warm can of beer trying to hide my freakout.

I was expecting the book to scare me just as much. When I read this I was in a rough place because the dogs on the farm next door to me started barking, nonstop, once the sun went down, and my mouse became really, really loud. I couldn’t sleep through the night as it was, between the dogs and the mouse clattering his way around the pots and pans in my sink, trying to jump into my trash can, and had already started to convince myself that all these sounds equaled someone breaking into my mouse to murder me, so reading Interview with the Vampire seemed like it might be a bad idea. It turned out not to be; Anne Rice does the slow build thing really well. Honestly, not that much happens in this book – you know, there’s Lestat, and Claudia, and some crazy vampire parties, and some even crazier Eastern European vampire zombies, and after Claudia kills Lestat and then you know that he’s coming back I could barely breathe, but most of the book is about Louis being kind of angsty and figuring out what it means to be a vampire. The reason this book is so good is that Anne Rice’s vampires feel a lot of human emotions, even when they don’t manage to identify them as such.

Interview underscored how truly terrible Twilight is. What is wrong with Stephanie Meyer that she took vampires – who are so freaky and sexual and unforgiving – and turned them into glittery-skinned baseball playing teens living in Oregon and swooning over dull high school girls? Yeesh.

Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time is a book that deserves a whole post – but I’m lazy. For one thing, it’s one of the best books of historical reportage I’ve ever read, and for another it’s probably of particular interest to the sort of people who visit my site because it helps give another side to The Grapes of Wrath-y story of the Dust Bowl. I never thought too much about how Steinbeck’s story doesn’t tell the story of the people who stayed behind, only those who left to try and make a better life in California. Egan’s book is suffocating and at times overwhelming; it is impossible to imagine or understand how people managed to live, for years, in places where the ground wasn’t even on the ground any longer. Judging by my own vague understanding of the Dust Bowl, its causes and impact on the lives of people living in it, this is one part of the Great Depression that is often forgotten. But, dear god, the scope of the dust storms Egan writes about, some of the photos – it scared the bejeezus out of me, especially because since the whole problem was created by our own stupidity. It’s heartbreaking to read about what the Dust Bowl looked like – all the awesome grasses and herds of buffalo – before the government encouraged people to settle and farm it.

I’ve been reading some Judy Blume lately. I did all her Fudge books over the summer and briefly forgot that she wrote books for older readers, but I’ve reread Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and Forever recently, both reaffirming my opionion that Judy Blume is the best writer for teens, ever. She never shies away from telling it like it is or from showing the minor uglinesses of her characters.

I’ve also been doing the Elizabeth George thing again. My mom told me to read her as a pretty light author for all my sad, lonely Peace Corps nights, but I wasn’t real into her first book, Payment in Blood. There must’ve been an Elizabeth George fan among the volunteers a few years ago, because almost all her books are in our office’s library in Skopje, so once the memory of my mild dislike for Inspecter Lynley and Sergeant Havers wore off, I started taking the mysteries home. And they get better and better, and I love that it’s a series and I can see how her characters develop and become more likeable (like, Lynley is constantly pining after his ladyfriend – I think they’re going to get married and then she’ll be murdered, or something, but right now we’re still in the swoony “why won’t she just love me back” phase of things).

I tried reading one book of hers, What Came Before He Shot Her, which was just unreadable, full of repulsive and unbelievable characters and dialogue. I started reading it when I was on my way to Egypt/Jordan/Israel over winter break, sitting at a coffee shop in Skopje while I waited three hours for my bus to Delchevo (a town on the opposite side of the country from me, near Bulgaria – we were flying out of Sofia), reading and reading and wondering when the hell Lynley and Havers were going to show up. Only after 70 pages they hadn’t shown up, and I realized that they were only going to show up at the end, and probably peripherally even then, so I quit and borrowed The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest from my friend and read that on my trip. Good, good choice. Last week I mentioned this book to my mother while we were skyping and her reaction was so wonderful – something like “You didn’t finish that, did you? God, it was awful – I read half and then I couldn’t take it anymore.” I felt tricked by the book. I checked it out expecting a Lynley & Havers mystery and instead got some wacky /insulting story about lower-class Jamaican immigrants, which I guess is one downside to writing a mystery series or whatever. If you branch out at all your readers are as likely to feel disappointed and pissed off at you as they are to enjoy “discovering a new world”. At least when John Grisham writes a novel with “pizza” or “Christmas” in the title I can be pretty sure it’s not a legal thriller.

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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?