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Posts Tagged ‘mystery’

imanishiI am quite hard to please when it comes to crime fiction. This is a genre that relies to a great extent on a well-crafted denouement, which is often precisely the let down. Some books, like those by Barbara Vine are redeemed by exceptionally sophisticated plotting and writing, even though the finish does not quite live up to my expectations. So, I do realize that by giving Inspector Imanishi Investigates a five-star rating, I might be setting future readers for disappointment by raising their expectations. But I’ll say with reasonable confidence that if you like crime fiction and/or care for social and cultural commentaries, reading this book will be time well spent.

Seicho Matsumoto’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates (1989) is the English translation of the much more poetically titled Suna no Utsuwa (Vessel of Sand) which was first published in 1961. Inspector Imanishi’s investigations certainly bear fruit, but shed no light (to me) on why this work should be titled Vessel of Sand, or what the picture on the book’s cover of a man covering his face with both hands is supposed to signify, and how it is relevant. Apart from these burning questions,  all plot-related intrigue is sufficiently cleared up.

Imanishi Eitaro (Imanishi being his family name) is a conscientious haiku-writing, bonsai-collecting detective trying to solve the mystery of a battered corpse of an unidentified man in a rail yard. His only clue is a half-line of conversation overheard by waitresses working at a nearby bar, that the victim supposedly had with an unidentified potential suspect. With almost nothing to go on, Inspector Imanishi slowly, methodically sets about identifying and capturing the killer. He does too, at the end.

Inspector Imanishi Investigates has an air of elegant simplicity, although its plot is anything but simple. This police procedural has layers upon layers, red herrings and blind alleys aplenty, and yet the richness of plot is intensified by the subtle and understated writing. The translation seems flat, but doesn’t impact the reading negatively, adding to the overall effect of sparseness. I can’t help but wonder whether reading this book in Japanese will have the same effect—I’ll never know.  Imianishi has none of the swagger of Philip Marlowe or the eccentricity of Hercule Poirot. He is just a good detective – deliberate, hardworking, quietly intelligent, though he’s not beyond an occasional miscalculation. He is mostly likeable, even if entirely conventional, and a little brusque (though not unkind) in dealings with his wife, who polishes his shoes, gets his newspaper, and uncomplainingly welcomes him home at the end of long days spent investigating. This is the 1960s after all, and the reader is oft reminded of the post-war, patriarchal setting of the story. Part of the charm is certainly the descriptions of everyday life – the pouring of the green tea over rice for a quick dinner, the Wajima lacquerware obi fasteners that Imanishi gifts his wife, the Kamedake abacus that Imanishi receives in the post, and such.

I am excited to read more by Matsumoto and will look out for Points and Lines and Pro Bono.

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Night Film

night filmNight Film (2014) has  pretty impressive  credentials – New York Times Bestseller! Named one of the best books of the year by NPR, Cosmopolitan, Kirkus Reviews, BookPage. The book lovin’ community also seems to have lapped it up – mostly. So, of course, I wanted to read it. What should have given me pause was that it comes recommended as a “page-turning thriller for readers of” among several others, Gillian Flyn. Remember Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn? The same Gone Girl that won, according to goodreads:

Barry Award Nominee for Best Novel (2013)Anthony Award Nominee for Best Novel (2013)Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award (RT Award) for Suspense/Thriller Novel (2012),Shirley Jackson Award Nominee for Best Novel (2012)Edgar Award Nominee for Best Novel (2013)Goodreads Choice for Best Mystery & Thriller (2012)Women’s Prize for Fiction Nominee for Longlist (2013), and Grand Prix des lectrices de Elle – policier (2013)

Well, I didn’t  care much for it.

So, after investing a few days on the nearly 600-page lumbering tome (only in length) that is Night Film, my reaction was an underwhelming meh.

I haven’t read much noir, and Night Film would certainly fall into that bucket (whether successful or not) so I don’t really have a frame of reference here. But enjoy it, I did not.

The missing center of the book is a mysterious cult horror-film director, a Stanislas Cordova, whose twenty-something daughter, Ashley, jumps to her death. Enter the protagonist, shamed investigative journalist Scott McGrath, the shining examples of whose once-illustrious journalistic history include intriguing titles such as Hunting Captain Hook: Pirating on the Open Seas, Crud: Dirty Secrets of the Oil Industry, and Cocaine Carnivals. McGrath sets out to investigate Ashley’s life and death together with unlikely companions, Nora and Hopper, whose motivations are not entirely comprehensible entirely bewildering. Cordova’s eccentricity begins to grate after the first 300 pages, and the themes of black-magic and family-curses only add to the confusion. The conclusion is neither neat nor clever.

The biggest problem I had with the book was the characters – none of them are very likable, but that does not really preclude interesting or good characterization. To me, all the characters fell flat and felt completely phony. I could not buy who they were and what they did. I could not buy the outlandish scenarios they found themselves in. The setting and the people felt bizarre, but not good, noir-like bizarre, but just plain absurd.

Neither did I enjoy the writing. Author Marisha Pessl interjects the meandering writing with plenty of visual aids – webpages of interviews and articles, official reports and plenty of pictures. A great idea in theory, but poorly executed – the news clippings and pictures seem too contrived, and if they are meant to be a satire, they are unsuccessful.

The book goes from promising hype to disappointing beginning, and all too quickly into the territory of Plain Boring (I feel a bit cruel saying this, though). I really tried to like it, but even being a 100-pages shorter, would not have endeared this book to me.

But no long-lasting harm done. Nothing a trusty Mo Willems can’t fix. His Elephant and Piggie  series has been a great hit with my four-year old, and he has leapfrogged explosively into unaided reading.

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Certifiable and Creepy

 

 

I’ve been good with new, 2-week books this year. I’ve diligently put them on hold as soon as they showed up on the local library’s database and waited patiently for them to become available. Or, I borrowed and read them even when I had eight other books due in five days. This October I really hit the jackpot, when two of the books I was really excited to read became available. I expected the first book, Where’d you go, Bernadette?to be clever, playful and funny. I found the  Maria Semple’s (the author) narrative style to be unique and interesting, at least until Bernadette disappears. I liked it more than I thought I would.

Which is not what I can say for Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. After waiting for a couple of months with bated breath, while I won’t say I was disappointed, I found it a bit meh.

The principal characters are definitely deranged, although that hasn’t stopped me from liking a book in the past. I did not enjoy how uneasy the story, especially the ending, made me feel. I am not sure it qualifies as a serious psychological thriller, much less as noir, in the way that I am the Cheese or Silence of the Lambs do. As I was reading the book, I had a feeling that the author was challenging me to hazard a guess as to what would happen next (which was easy, too easy), and that she expected the reader to confidently come up with the wrong answer, at which point she would jump in and say ‘Ah-a!’. But this game didn’t work out very well, and the plot is only moderately clever and somewhat predictable.

I’ll still say I liked the book, and might even recommend it to some as a good book to read on the train.

 

 

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Maisie Dobbs is a detective. So, I assumed that the eponymous Maisie Dobbs (2003) would be a suspense novel, and not totally without reason – the inner cover proclaims the novel to be of the genre ‘Fiction/Mystery’. Fiction it surely is, mystery – well, there is some mystery, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a mystery novel.

Maisie Dobbs belongs to a poor working class London family and loses her mother at thirteen. Her father, Frankie, fears that he may not be able to afford the education that his gifted daughter surely deserves, or care for her with his limited resources. He sends her to be a junior maid in the aristocratic household of Lord and Lady Compton. Maisie is the sort of child that some parents would be proud of – she is meticulous, hard working, responsible, compassionate, and empathetic. She is also rather strange – unnaturally intuitive and excessively serious – whose idea of fun is to wake up at three in the morning to read The Philosophical Works of David Hume. Lady Rowan Compton, whose philanthropic desires have conveniently been recently awakened by friend and accomplished private detective, Dr. Maurice Blanche, recognizes what a bright girl Maisie is and sets her up as a pupil of Dr. Blanche. Under his tutelage, Maisie is accepted at Cambridge in the autumn of 1914. The War interrupts her education, and Maisie trains at a nurse and serves at the Front in France. After the War, Maisie first works under Dr. Blanche and eventually sets up her own practice as an independent private investigator.

Maisie’s time as a housemaid has much of the upstairs-downstairs drama as in Downton Abbey, only without the scheming footmen and maids. This divide between the aristocratic class and the working class is often brought up in the story. For instance, Maisie is advised by her friend and fellow-maid, Enid, that

… there’s them upstairs, and there’s us downstairs. There’s no middle, never was. So the likes of you and me can’t just move up a bit, if that’s what you think.

When Maisie gains admission to Cambridge, her father is worried that

Maisie might not ever fit in to any station, that she would forever be betwixt and between.

Also noteworthy is that although Cambridge admitted women since the late nineteenth century, women weren’t awarded degrees until 1948. Maisie’s mentor Maurice Blanche expresses his desire for change when he says:

Of course, as I am male, a degree could be conferred upon me. But there will be a time, I hope before too long, when women will also earn degrees for their advanced academic studies.

Enid, Maisie’s friend, is shown to practice her English so as to sound of a higher social class than she actually is – poor working class. Do you remember Henry Higgins’ speech lessons to Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady? Dropped aitches were an easy indicator of working class status – the upper class pronounced the ‘h’ sound in words that began with h, while the lower classes did not. And so, Enid practiced her h-ouse, h-ome and h-ope

…convinced that if she was to get anywhere in the world, she had to work quickly to introduce aitches into her spoken language.

Class differences aside, the novel is more about the devastation of war than about the exploits of a female super sleuth. In her dedication at the beginning of the book, author Jacqueline Winspear remembers her grandfather, who “sustained serious leg wounds”, and her grandmother, who was partially blinded, during the First World War. So, it’s not a surprise that the War is a theme throughout most of the book. More specifically, the book does not dwell as much on death and destruction, as on soldiers who suffered grievous facial wounds, and were unable to function fully in society:

With their damaged faces, once so very dear to a mother, father, or sweetheart, they were now reduced to gargoyles by a war that, for them had never ended. There were men without noses or jaws, men who searched for light with empty eye  sockets, men with only half a face where once a full-formed smile had beamed.

At the time of the War, plastic surgery was still, if not in infancy then perhaps in adolescence, and many men who suffered facial disfigurement wore tin masks to conceal their shattered faces. See this fascinating article in the Smithsonian Magazine about the physicians and artists at the Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department. It also includes a video of a mask being fitted on a soldier.

Maisie, a nurse herself, is no stranger to these horrific injuries…

He lay with his profile to me,” wrote Enid Bagnold, a volunteer nurse (and later the author of National Velvet), of a badly wounded patient. “Only he has no profile, as we know a man’s. Like an ape, he has only his bumpy forehead and his protruding lips—the nose, the left eye, gone.

– From the article in the Smithsonian Magazine

…or to standard protocol as to how not to express your distress at the sight of these gaping wounds…

Always look a man straight in the face,” one resolute nun told her nurses. “Remember he’s watching your face to see how you’re going to react.

In Sidcup, England… some park benches were painted blue; a code that warned townspeople that any man sitting on one would be distressful to view.

– From the article in the Smithsonian Magazine

Another tragic aspect of the war that plays an integral role in the plot is the execution of soldiers for desertion and cowardice. Many soldiers were accused of desertion, sentenced to death, and shot dead by their own people. Soldiers who refused to participate in this cruel exercise were likely to suffer the same fate for insubordination.

I am sure I would have enjoyed Maisie Dobbs tremendously while in high school. There is a romance, that I will not get into, which would certainly have appealed to my school-girl sensibilities. While I was certainly moved by the grim aspects of war, I did find the plot and the mystery (or mysteries) rather juvenile. And as for Maisie herself, I did not know what to make out of her. She’s an odd one, a good person to be sure, but very odd. I was also not impressed by the rather single-dimensional characters in the story – they’re all good-hearted and extremely helpful. Winspear might have done a good job describing the dark times of the War, but her characters are too forthcoming to be real.

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“I don’t understand. These were Jews escaping the Nazis? But – they were going to Shanghai?

“It was their only choice”

“What do you mean? I thought they went to other countries in Europe, or came here [United States of America].”

“Survivors did, after the war. But as the Nazis rose in the thirties, countries all over the world closed their doors. Everyone knew what was happening, but no government was willing to deal with a flood of desperate refugees.”

– From The Shanghai Moon (2009) by award-winning author S. J. Rozan

I would not have expected a lesson in world history, a tidbit that has escaped me entirely until now, from a mystery that involves a jewelry theft in New York City, but I’ve come to expect treats in unexpected places.

In Shanghai Moon, Lydia Chin and partner Bill Smith are private investigators, hired to recover jewelry that belonged to a young brother and sister who fled Austria for Shanghai in 1938. Chin and Smith’s mysterious Swiss Client informs them that the jewelry thief, a corrupt official from China, is in New York City, and is likely to sell the jewelry in Chinatown. While Chin (who is Chinese-American) and Smith navigate the crowded alleys of little China, a couple of people involved in the investigation turn up dead, and the duo realize they have something big on their hands. And that is the mystery they must solve.

Chinatown is described deliciously in the book which brought back memories of eating delicious, vegetarian, Cantonese grub on Mott Street, and looking for egg tarts and hand-pulled noodles in the area.  I found the plot complicated (in a good way), exciting, and just a little confusing and read the book from cover to cover in less than 24 hours. The denouement is reasonably satisfying, while the much of the story is told through letters and diary entries, that sound quite unnatural. And because there are so many of them, I found them a tad wearisome. But the detectives are spirited, and I did enjoy my introduction to the Chinese-American detective, and the cultural references that came with it. Also, a lot of history is interwoven into the plot, from the Japanese invasion, to the conflict between Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalist troops and Mao Zedong’s Communist army, and the tumultuous climate that prevailed in Shanghai during those times.

Now, onto the history lesson. According to Encyclopedia of Diasporas: Immigrant and Refugee Cultures Around the World

From 1938 on, some 20,000 Jewish refugees from Central Europe, chiefly from Germany and Austria, escaped to Shanghai, the only place in the world that required no documents, such as visas, health certificates and financial statements.

What happened to them during the Japanese occupation of the city?

Under the pressure of Nazi Germany, the Japanese Authorities proclaimed, on 18 February 1943, the establishment of “the Designated Area for Stateless Refugees” in Shanghai, ordering Jewish refugees who had arrived in Shanghai from Europe since 1937 to move into the area within a month…Confinement, poor diet and sanitation, in addition to restrictive methods of Japanese surveillance, put Jews in a difficult, unpredictable, dangerous and insufferable situation.

And? What happened when the War was over?

they were able to leave, and most made plans to go to another country to join their family or relatives. They had never planned to come to China in the first place, ending up there simply because they had no other choice. Countries such as the United States, Canada, and Australia, became their preferred destinations, but the door of most countries were not open to them. The founding of the State of Israel appeared to be an opportunity. In 1948, right after its establishment, Israel opened an office in Shanghai to welcome Jews to Israel, and about 10,000 Jews found a new home there.

There was Jewish presence in China much before theWar, and this continues today.

You learn something new everyday.

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Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is the second fictional Canadian I’ve encountered this week.

I don’t take my mystery selections lightly – I’ve spent too much time anticipating brilliant denouements and being let down by conclusions of dazzling stupidity and gaping holes. I take great trouble to look online for positive reviews and recommendations among reader communities, especially before starting a new series. Unfortunately, that kills spontaneity and I no longer just pick a mystery on a whim. The last time I did that, which was a while ago, I was thoroughly disappointed.

Still Life is quite a stunning debut. I am intrigued by Chief Inspector Gamache, by the charming French-Canadian village setting of the Three Pines, and its singular residents. In the book, 76 year old former teacher, Jane Neal, dies in what seems on the surface to be a hunting accident. The key to the mystery is a painting, Jane Neal’s work, hence the title Still Art. The novel is entirely engaging and, well, I buy the conclusion.

A wonderful thing about fiction is that one can base it on real life, twist true episodes to make them interesting, or even reproduce smart quotes. Fact can parade as fiction, in the depths of fiction, and very few people need know. A non-fiction writer, however is obliged to stick to the facts and not fantastic peregrinations of his mind.

And there he found himself, holding a worn copy of Being. He’d read Being when it first came out a few years before. The title always reminded him of the day his daughter Annie had come home from first grade with her English homework which was to name three types of beans. She’d written ‘green beans, yellow beens and human beans’.

– From Still Life

That was a delicious little titbit right there. Did an Annie really write about human beans?  Or did Louise Penny think that up?

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“Cakes. Great fat profiteroles of oozing cream. Slices of neat chocolate, alternately white and dark, held together with the merest scattering of liqueur-soaked ratafia crumbs. Cauliflowers of green marzipan, the curd made from ground almonds bound with honey and rosewater. Squares of rich shortbread studded with almonds and smothered with fudge. Milk-feuille layered with freshly pureed raspberries instead of jam, and creme patissiere. Lemon and orange jumbles drenched in powdered sugar. Vanilla meringues supreme, moist little curls of chestnut puree peeping out. Frangipanes.” ( p. 194 of Written in Blood by Caroline Graham)

Poor Inspector Barnaby. I can imagine just how miserable he must have felt looking at this display, especially when he had toast with low-fat faux butter for breakfast. Barnaby is not extraordinarily eccentric, or charming, but he is clearly intelligent, not unkind, and has a certain appeal that is absolutely necessary for the (Inspector Barnaby) series to survive. He shares an amusing dynamic with his Deputy, Sergeant Gavin Troy, again an essential chemistry.

The setting is a village, Midsomer Worthy, and concerns its Writing Circle. This group of wannabe writers meet once a month at host Gerald Hadleigh’s place. This month, they have a celebrity guest, writer Max Jennings. Gerald, who we gather has some unpleasant association with Max in the past, is none too eager about the visit and asks Writing Circle member Rex to not leave him alone with Max. However, Max tricks the rest of the group into leaving and traps Gerald and himself alone in the former’s house. The next morning, Gerald is found dead.

Author, Catherine Graham, certainly succeeds in creating a compelling mystery – Gerald’s past is an enigma, the members of the writing circle are reminiscent of characters in Miss Marple mysteries (perhaps because the setting is so similar), the relationships are complex. There is oppression, unrequited love, loneliness, class consciousness and far too many secrets, far too many themes. The solution to the puzzle, though ingenious, seems a stretch and ‘over coincidental’.

Many of the whodunits I recently read have been impressively satisfying for about the first three-quarters of the book. They’ve been so good, that they were bad – they dragged me into ‘the great oblivion of the good mystery’, the kind that is responsible for unwashed laundry, undone dishes, missed gym appointments, staying up late, overeating or under eating, and a general state of pleasurable obliviousness. And then, the moment I’ve been waiting for arrives: the who, the how, the why and the when. And leaves me profoundly dissatisfied.

What makes a mystery great? Good writing? Great characters? The ability to create this great oblivion? How vital is the denouement? Can brilliant characterizations (as in Barbara Vine mysteries such as The Chimney-sweeper’s Boy and A Fatal Inversion) make up for conclusions that somehow fail to deliver? One mystery, which in my opinion, has a splendid denouement, is Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced, where everything falls perfectly into place at the end, all the little pieces, and life makes sense.

And the search continues, for great plot lines, and satisfying finales.

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