Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Rebecca Stott approaches evolution in a thriller

Another fascinating story about the origins of evolution, this novel tells the tale of a British medical student working in Paris in 1815. There he meets the famous naturalist Cuvier and a cast of characters that bring that historical moment alive. (This novel makes an interesting companion piece to Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures.)

The Coral Thief

Rebecca Stott’s new novel, The Coral Thief (320 pages, Spiegel and Grau, $15), tells the story of the handsome young Daniel Conner, who sets out from England to study natural history in Paris before beginning his medical studies at home. The year is 1815, and Napoleon has just been defeated at Waterloo and is on his way to permanent exile in St. Helena island in the Atlantic Ocean.

Daniel Conner, with blue eyes, dark curly hair, and a bright smile, has big plans for his study in Paris and his future success. He has letters of introduction from his professor back in Edinburgh, and he has samples of coral, containing recently discovered fossils, that he is planning to present to the great Baron Cuvier as a way of gaining access to that man’s laboratories. Unfortunately, though, Daniel meets a darkly mysterious Frenchwoman who relieves him of all his belongings on the mail coach he is riding into Paris. This puts him in a difficult situation, to say the least, and he finds he begins his time in Paris dealing with the Chief of the Bureau of Security, Henri Jagot.

Confused by Jagot’s interest in his case, and complaining to his new friend in Paris, Fin Robinson, that he will never be able to work with Cuvier, he is accosted once more by Lucienne Barnard, the woman from the coach, who compliments him on the work in his notebooks and tells him she will return his materials before too long. This is almost too much for Daniel to take in, but when Jagot picks him up again and tells him that this Frenchwoman is a master thief and someone he has been tracking for years, he recognizes that he is in over his head. Jagot insists that he should report back if she ever makes contact with him again.

Matters go from bad to worse, however, and the story becomes more engaging, when Daniel admits to himself that he has fallen deeply in love with the mysterious Lucienne. It is not just her beauty that attracts him; he is also astonished at her intelligence. He has had a narrow education in Edinburgh, and she begins by challenging his beliefs and suggesting that there are different ways of looking at natural history. She favors the transformism of scientists, like Lamarke, who believe that species have changed over time. Cuvier, and everyone Daniel had studied with, believed that God created the world in an unchanging pattern and that all the different species needed merely to be discovered.

This playful intellectual material gives some substance to a story that becomes a real thriller. Lucienne is trying to steal a diamond that Cuvier has hidden and Daniel is committed to helping her. But Jagot is on to the plot and is trying to trap her and her accomplices in the act of theft. All the key action happens at night time in the underground passages of Paris, and Stott realizes the potential of this setting for the harrowing exploits she describes.

In the end, Daniel looks back on this time with nostalgia and regret for the contacts he has lost. But it was also an education for him. For those of us reading the novel, it is an education too. This moment in natural history, just before Darwin, and this point in the history of Europe, just after Napoleon, make a wonderful tale. Rebecca Stott has brought this story to life in remarkable ways. She has a great power of historical narration, and the figure of Daniel Connor makes a vivid narrator. This is a story to savor.

Rebecca Stott

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Monday, March 29, 2010

Bridget Asher writes about what it means to have a second chance

I am not sure where I stumbled upon this novel, but I decided to give it a try. It tells the story of an already-married young woman who poses as the wife a single friend. That is the premise.

The Pretend Wife

Bridget Asher’s The Pretend Wife (304 pages, Bantam, $15) is based on a simple premise. The heroine Gwen Merchant is more or less happily married to Peter, an anesthetist. Gwen worries that there might not be enough love in the marriage, but her friends all tell her she’s crazy, and she herself feels that there is really nothing to complain about.

This is the background for her meeting up with Elliott Hull, an old college friend, briefly a boyfriend, who is now a professor of philosophy at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, where they all live. She is charmed to meet Elliott again, and she is a little shaken because she finds him attractive and intriguing. When they talk, Peter is with her, and it is Peter who invites Elliott to join them at a party they are going to.

Gwen was not so sure she wanted Elliott at the party, but then he saves her life when she almost chokes on something she is eating. Afterwards, in a grand gesture of thanks, Peter offers to give Elliott something he really needs. What he needs, it seems, is a wife to present to his mother, who is dying of cancer.

Peter volunteers Gwen for this role, and the rest, as they say, is history. Gwen falls in love with Elliott all over again, and at his mother’s weekend lake house, where they are perpetrating this charade, she finds she loves everyone: the mother herself, Vivian, who challenges her to “tell the truth”, Elliot’s sister and her two charming children, the house itself, the lake, everything.

In spite of the intense bonding with Vivian, the wonderful times with Bib, Elliott’s niece, and her loving moments with Elliott, she decides that she must go back to Peter and her normal life. When she does this, though, she also determines to get to the bottom of her mother’s death in a car crash many years before—her father, a biologist, has been grieving for years—and to work out something about her marriage by figuring out her relation to her mother.

This works well. Her father sees how needy she is and shows her her mother’s many boxes of knitting that have been hidden since her death. The knitting inspires her to ask further about her mother, and as she comes to a clearer understanding of that woman, she also understands more about herself.

The novel deals with some of the dissatisfactions of marriage and the loss of parents extremely well. It does fairly well in creating the romance between Gwen and Elliott, too. But as the plot heats up and all the conflicts rev up into high gear, the novel falls a little flat. The ending is more or less what one expects, but the novel seems to rush to get us to the end. Some of the short cuts are not really convincing.

I won’t go into too many details, because the novel is worth reading through to the end. Some miracles are more believable than others, though. Perhaps the ending feels inevitable, but it’s hard to imagine that it would be as easy to get there as Gwen finds it.

Bridget Asher is a talented novelist, and this book will win her many readers. Let’s challenge her, as she has her characters challenge one another, to “tell the truth.” A richer novel would surely be the result.

Bridget Asher

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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Tracy Chevalier imagines the female origins of evolution

Tracy Chevalier’s new novel talks about two women, from different classes, whose fossil collecting in the early nineteenth century changed scientific understanding of different species and their extinction.

Remarkable Creatures

Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures (320 pages, Dutton, $26.95) tells a remarkable story. The three Philpot sisters, whose brother has inherited the family house in London, move to Lyme Regis, on the Devonshire beach, as a way of preserving their small inheritance of 150 pounds a year (each). Each sister has a way of coping with the exile from London society. Margaret, the prettiest, tries to maintain a social whirl by attending balls at the Assembly and participating in whatever other social occasions are available. Louise fills her days with gardening, at least when the weather is good, and gets satisfaction from making the grounds of their home very beautiful. Elizabeth, however, has a different obsession, and for her, Lyme is a perfect choice. She collects fossils. Obviously intelligent and well-read, she finds these hints of earlier life at the beach both intriguing and challenging.

Luckily for Elizabeth, there is a local girl, Mary Anning, whose own experience of collecting fossils is even richer than her own. Mary’s life is not rich in any other ways. Her father collects and sells fossils too, but there is not much money for their family of four. When their father dies, Mary is challenged to find enough fossils to support the family.

Elizabeth and Mary become a successful team. Mary has the eye for finding ever larger and more impressive fossils, and Elizabeth helps Mary learn how to organize and classify them. As Mary finds richer and more connected buyers willing to pay well for her finds, Elizabeth is more concerned to bring them to the attention of scientists and collectors who are more interested in studying the discoveries than making money on them.

At the same time, Elizabeth begins to worry about the implications of what they are finding. One of the species, a particularly large specimen that looks like a crocodile, she knows is not like any croc she has ever seen in any book. The fact, later confirmed by scientists, that this is not a species still in existence, challenges her faith. If God created the world and the animals in it, how could there be animals that no longer existed? She asks her local priest, who tells her that she has not looked far enough to find the same species. Another scientific friend ties to explain how a theory of extinction could also be consistent with her faith.

While Elizabeth is dealing with these questions, Mary is selling more and interesting fossils to various men in her pursuits. Elizabeth knows these men are out to use Mary, and she reacts so aggressively that Mary distances her and tries to make it on her own. Chevalier is wonderful at creating the tension between these two women and showing how deeply they love each other, even when they are unable to articulate this to themselves.

The personal drama is played out against a moving account of what is happening in the scientific world. The discoveries that both women are making contribute importantly to the burgeoning understanding of evolution. This is really a wonderful novel, based on historical fact and imagination in ways that make it impossible to put down. I loved it.

Tracy Chevalier

Monday, March 22, 2010

Helen Simonson recounts racial drama in an English village

I thought Helen Simonson’s debut novel sounded overly cute, and I could hardly believe the high praise of what sounded like a cutesy tale set in an English village. When I read this engaging novel, however, I thought that at last Jane Austen may have met her match.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

Major Ernest Pettigrew, the hero of Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (355 pages, don house, $25) is a rather pompous and self-important widower who lives in a tiny Sussex village. His son Roger, who is a handsome young go-getter in banking, lives in London. He and the Major are not estranged exactly, but there are very few things about which they see eye to eye.

An early disagreement occurs over a pair of vintage sporting rifles, one belonging to the Major, and one to his brother, Bertie. When the novel opens, Bertie has just died, and amidst the Major’s concern for his widow and sense of deep loss, he nurtures the belief that his lone gun will now find its mate. It seems his father left one of the pair to each of them when he died and said that the guns should be reunited when one of the brothers died. The Major assumes that he will reassemble the pair and pass them on to his son in due course. His sister-in-law Marjorie has very different ideas about the guns. She wants to sell them quickly to have money for her daughter’s education. Roger angers the Major by siding with Marjorie—he is a banker after all and sees no point in having those guns hanging around in a collection—and he seems quite deaf to the Major’s sentimental motivations. After all, the Major says, the guns were presented to his father by an Indian prince at the time of partition and Indian independence. It seems the Colonel, the Major's father saved the prince's wife when a train they were riding on was attacked. If this is not romantic reason enough to preserve the guns, the Major thinks, then what would be?

The Major finds a sympathetic, if culturally distinct, response from the middle-aged proprietress of the local corner grocery store, Mrs. Ali. Mrs. Ali has taken over the shop when her husband died, and, childless, she has been a friend to many in the community. The Major is quite fond of her, and he enjoys confiding in her more than he had expected. Before this point, it seems, she has been the person who measured out his weekly purchase of tea and other staples. As she becomes a friend, though, he becomes aware of the depth of her understanding and the richness of her sympathy.
As the Major begins to think he might feel something more for Mrs. Ali, the less open-minded members of his local community notice and start to snipe in only the ways that small town gate keepers can snipe. The Major is not entirely immune to their bitter words. After all, he enjoys a key position in the community: revered, or at least respected, by all, he is a regular at the local golf club, he plays chess with his neighbors, and he is considered an antidote to outrageous behavior of any kind. Their whispering worries the Major more than he would like to admit.

Even worse is Roger’s appalled response to imagine that his father, at the ripe old age of sixty-eight, is dating the Pakistani woman who runs the grocery. The Major defends his friend Jasmina as a cultured and intelligent woman, but Roger won’t have any of it. Meanwhile he is staying in his father’s Sussex neighborhood with his faiancee, an American designer whose careless attitudes and acquisitive nature at first shock and anger the Major.

Mrs. Ali’s family is not any more approving than the Major’s. She has a dour Islamic fundamentalist nephew who has come from her husband’s family in the north to help her manage the shop. He is wildly disapproving, on religious grounds, of all her behavior, even of running a shop. And soon, she and the Major are having to sneak off for their afternoon teas and Sunday afternoons by the fire.

A more or less disastrous climax comes when the golf club decides to celebrate Colonel Pettigrew, the major’s father, in a short performance centering on the events that happened in India in the middle of the twentieth century. Since Roger has agreed to play the part of his grandfather, and to use the family guns, the Major is sure that disaster will strike. He is also worried that Mrs. Ali will be embarrassed by the representation of Indians in the piece. And Mrs. Ali’s nephew is against the whole travesty from the beginning.

Everything does blow up, almost literally, at this affair; but it is how the characters put the pieces back together after the break up that makes this a wonderful novel.

Simonson takes the simple materials of a small village, much as Jane Austen did, and she turns them into a truly wonderful novel.

Helen Simonson

Friday, March 19, 2010

John Banville write a compelling tale about life and death

John Banville is a great novelist, and this latest novel is moving in its focus of the last days of one man’s life.

The Infinities

Adam Godley, the comatose hero of John Banville’s novel The Infinities (273 pages, Knopf, $25.95), feels quite frustrated that he can’t make his feelings known. Shut up in a darkened upper chamber, the room in which he used to do his mathematical research, he would like nothing more than to be taken into the nearby wood to be given the chance to return to nature.

His middle-aged wife, Ursula—John is in his later sixties—felt that it would be best to put him in the room where he did so much work. She feels his loss actively, but she can hardly stand to see him in the vegetative state.

Adam, their son, has come home with his wife Helen; and they are trying to fit into the oddly dysfunctional life at home. Adam looks for things that need fixing, and he deftly moves his considerable bulk from room to room while he tries to work up the nerve to visit his father’s sick room.

Their daughter Petra, who still lives in the house, has no trouble visiting the sick room. She does not want to lose her father, either, but then she understands him better than anyone else in the house.

There are also a couple of visitors. Roddy Wagstaff, an acolyte of Adam Godley’s, and the one who will eventually write his biography (we are led to believe), arrives as if he is expecting to have a private session with the declining mathematician. Roddy has to fend off the familial expectation that somehow he is also courting Petra. He can’t imagine why anyone would have that idea, but everyone seems to, especially Petra herself. Blond and willowy, he hovers at the edges of the action, and when the experience touches him too closely, he flees.

Another visitor, Benny Grace, chubby and messily dressed, in some ways the opposite of Roddy, has also come for a last audience with the great man. Benny has a great ability to insinuate himself into places where he is not wanted, and it seems that he has in the past been the companion in the older Adam’s exploring the urban underworlds of various cities in which he had speaking engagements.

As these characters fall all over themselves in their attempts to deal with the fact of the dying man in their presence, two other things are happening. First, the dying man himself is both aware of what they are doing, and uses their attempts to reflect on his own relation to all those present. He also thinks about his past, his first wife, his mathematical accomplishments, and so on. And all the time he offers this other perspective on everything that is transpiring.

At the same time, there are a few classical gods who have taken residence in the house and are participating in the action. The most visible of these is Hermes, or Mercury, who narrates the action and participates in it to a certain degree. His own father Zeus, also participates in rather lurid seductions of Helen. Zeus takes the shape of Helen’s husband when he is in dalliance with her, and you can imagine what this does for marital relations.

The novel is beautifully written. Paragraphs of description are rich with narrative detail, and something is happening at every moment in this marvelously paced and lushly imagined fantasy. The texture is luxurious and the narrative itself offers an alternative to the sad tale it is relating.

I recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys a bit of magical realism. In this case the magic underlines the deep complexity of human experience.

John Banville

Monday, March 15, 2010

Eric Puchner creates a dystopic California that is all too recognizable

I liked the sound of this novel even though the subject was rather dark. I've been teaching a course on California literature, and I thought this book sounded perfect.

Model Home

Eric Puchner’s remarkable first novel, Model Home (360 pages, Scribner, $26)—he has published a prize-winning short story collection called, Music Through the Floor—tells of a family of five living in a faceless but luxurious development in Palos Verdes. Warren Ziller has moved his family from Wisconsin because an old friend has persuaded him to invest in a new real estate venture.

All well and good, until it turns out that the new development of model homes, called Auburn Fields, is situated next to a toxic waste dump. As the developers start to realize their fix, Warren can do little to recoup the entire life savings (and every other financial resource of the family) that he has sunk into this scheme.

The family remains oblivious to this catastrophe: when the car is repossessed they believe his tale that it has been stolen, and when the furniture disappears he tells them all that he has ordered new ones. Camille, his wife, notices that something strange is going on, but she thinks he is having an affair. Though really he is being so vague because he wants to avoid uncomfortable questions.

Camille has a job in public school administration, and she is trying to put together a sex-education video to the consternation of her school board. The job gets her out of the house, though, and when things go absolutely belly-up with Warren’s investments, her job at least keeps them in baloney sandwiches.

But that is a world of crisis and family tragedy away from what is going on at the opening of the novel. Aside from Camille and her sex education video, their handsome oldest son Dustin is having an affair with one of the prettiest girls in his glass. As pleased as he is with Kira, though, he is also attracted to her renegade little sister, who seems like a disaster waiting to happen.

Lyle, meanwhile, his hyper intelligent sister, has begun an affair with Hector, a member of the security force guarding their housing estate. Hector is a winning character, with his collection of odd pets—chameleons, cockroaches, and small mammals—and his world-weary nineteen years. Even after he and Lyle seem to fall out of love, he remains attached to the family and involved in their catastrophe.

Finally, there is Jonas, the adorable youngest member of the family, who has fantasies about being abducted and imagines hideous ways in which he might be tortured. This is entertaining enough until he starts to take this notion of torture a little too literally. Then we may begin to wonder about his safety.

Eventually the family learns of Warren’s financial fiasco; but just as they do, they are struck with a very different tragedy. When they return from a short holiday, Dustin walks up to the house and lights a cigarette. The house explodes and Dustin is set on fire.

This event, and the tragic attempts to rebuild Dustin’s facial structure and give him some kind a life back, brings the splintering family back together for a while. But even this desperate need for unity only tears the family apart further, and eventually their differences cause a total split.

This split doesn’t feel quite right, and there are various attempts from one member of the family or another to bring things back together. Whether or not that can work remains to be seen, but what is certainly true is that they learn a lot about themselves and what they mean to each other. The ending is powerful, even if it is not the kind of happy ending we may have been hoping for.

Eric Puchner

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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Mark Mills creates a thriller in Malta during World War II

Mark Mills latest novel is called a “lush romantic thriller” on the jacket, and it is that and more. I am happy to recommend it.

The Information Officer

Mark Mills' The Information Officer (276 pages, Random House, $25) tells the story of Max Chadwick, a Brit stationed in Malta during WWII. Max is an Information Officer, which means that he publishes well-crafted deceptions in order to keep up the spirits of the local inhabitants. In the early years of the war, this small Mediterranean island was bombarded mercilessly by the Germans and Italians, and the poor Maltese came close to despair. The British, who inhabited the island as colonial rulers, understood the tactical importance of the island, and did their best to fight off the attacks and protect the locals.

Into this already tense situation—even when the bombing raids concentrated on the airport or the naval installation, stray bombs could hit neighborhood gathering places, hospitals, and private homes—someone is carrying out a series of grisly murders of young bar girls.

Max is dragged into this dreary affair when the head surgeon at the local hospital tells him about a body that has just been brought in. Freddie, the doctor, is concerned to keep the murder quiet because he feels the authorities are ignoring some similar cases that he reported earlier. Max understands the need for secrecy, and he takes on the role of private investigator, at least for a while.

Mills does a wonderful job of creating the world of wartime Malta, and he peoples the novel with a vast and interesting range of minor characters. There are local women, part Maltese and part British, who add knowledge of the local surroundings and clear erotic interest to the proceedings; there are also an assortment of displaced British and American soldiers and fortune hunters—sometimes one and the same—who complicate the story and give it richness and depth.

At times, the action becomes unnecessarily complicated. Max is riding his motorcycle back and forth across the island so many times, that it becomes almost confusing. But Mills maintains his clear sight of a dramatic ending, and there is nothing disappointing about that. In fact, he ties everything up rather elegantly in the end.

I like the novel quiet a lot, and I will surely go back and look for some of his earlier titles. Mills is a talented and erudite novelist. It’s rare these days to find a novelist who quotes Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, and Virgil, but Mills does, and he somehow does so without seeming to be showing off.

Mark Mills

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Sunday, March 7, 2010

Cathleen Schine writes an exhilarating homage to Sense and Sensibility

I have enjoyed several of Cathleen Schine’s novels, but when I read that her latest was a loose homage to Jane Austen’s wonderful Sense and Sensibility, I rushed to read it. It is a successful homage to Austen’s novel, but it is also a wonderful tale in its own ways.

The Three Weissmanns of Westport

Cathleen Schine’s The Three Wesissmanns of Westport (292 pages, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $25) is a wonderful novel. It tells the story of seventy-five-year-old Betty Weissmann, whose husband of forty-eight years, Joseph, divorces her and throws her out of her home. His girlfriend, ironically named Felicity, talks Joseph out of letting his wife stay in the Central Park West apartment, and she persuades him that she will be happier living in a cottage in Westport, Connecticut, that a family friend has offered her.

Anyone who has read Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility will recognize the scenes from that novel in which Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters are forced out of their home when her well-meaning step-son is persuaded by his avaricious wife that he is being overly generous to a woman who does not really need a great fortune to survive.

In Schine’s novel, Betty Weissmann moves to the Westport cottage with her two daughters, Annie, just over, and Miranda, just under fifty. Annie has been married and has two grown sons. Her husband died several years before the action of the novel. Miranda has dated any number of men, but she seems to like falling in love more than she likes sustaining a relationship. As the novel opens, she is between relationships and confronting a crisis in her career.

Annie works in a small private library, and this suits her quiet and inner-directed personality. Miranda is a literary agent, larger than life, who is suddenly confronted with a public outcry and possible bankruptcy because many of her highly touted memoirs turn out to be based on fabricated memories.

These three women take over the cottage, which at first disappoints them in its shabbiness, and make it a new home. In this setting, a few things happen as they should. The nearly hysterical Miranda falls for a dashing young actor who saves her when her kayak overturns. Kit is as handsome and exciting to Miranda as Austen’s Willoughby is to Marianne Dashwood; but unlike Austen’s cad, Kit has been married and has a young son, Henry, who attracts Miranda almost as much as the actor himself does.

While this romance is growing, and before the faithless Kit takes off for a part in a movie (in California), an older, semi-retired lawyer, Roberts, who sports a bow-tie, seems to take an interest in the family in general and in Miranda in particular. We all think we know where this is going. But I am happy to say that Schine surprises us with the details of the plot, improves on Austen, if I can say that, who gives her Brandon the task of saving Marianne. I won’t give the plot away, but what happens to Roberts is very satisfying.

Also satisfying is what happens to Miranda, whose long string of boyfriends hardly prepares us for where her heart takes her in the end. Annie too, controlling everyone and fretting as much as she does, also finds great comfort at the end of the novel.

By the end, Schine has made this her own story and a reader either forgets about Sense and Sensibility or enjoys the ways the novelist has played against her early nineteenth-century model. She tells a warm and generous story, and she makes us care deeply about what happens to the three Weissmanns of Westport.

Cathleen Schine

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Friday, March 5, 2010

Owen Hill creates an intriguing Berkeley thriller

“A thriller set in Berkeley?” I thought. Well, why not. And Owen Hill does a wonderful job of conveying the feeling of life in Berkeley, even as it is threatened by a major corporation.

The Incredible Double

What is wonderful about Owen Hill’s new Clay Blackburn mystery, The Incredible Double (28 pages, PM Press, $13.95), is its rich evocation of life in Berkeley, California. Anyone who has spent time in Berkeley, as I have, will recognize all the places Hill mentions. That results in a pleasantly nostalgic encounter with the events of this lurid novel.

I say “lurid” only because of the emphasis on particular sexual exploits, which form a central feature of the plot and even find their way into the title. As insistent as the descriptions of sex are in this novel, they still pale beside the evocations of Berkeley street and café life. The true strength of the novel lies in this evocation. Whether it is a quick espresso at Café Trieste or a search for books at Cody’s. Hill’s descriptions are vivid and evocative.

The plot, such as it is, involves the owner of a large national chain of drug stores, a shady character called Wally, who becomes Clay’s nemesis. At first he seems to hire Clay to discover who has been writing vilifying statements about him, but very quickly Clay understands that Wally works with a series of doubles and he has, for no clear reason, been both duped and marked by the avenging drug lord.

Clay has a trusty and motley band of accomplices, true Berkeley stereotypes. A middle-aged lefty who has as odd a relation to society as Clay, Marvin is ready to match him espresso for espresso and help him out of the impossible jams in which he finds himself. Bailey Doa, a transsexual former FBI agent, supplies the muscle- and fire-power, and she also knows how to drive a getaway car when required to.

Clay himself is squeamish about guns, and he has no license as a private investigator. He is by trade and temperament a book scout, which means he goes to estate sales and used bookstores looking for treasures that he can resell. This doesn’t make him a great living, but he does seem to squeak by.

He bases his operations in his Chandler Apartments place, where he is as likely to climb over homeless people in the stairway as he is to watch his neighbors conducting their personal lives. This is another Berkeley locale that is vividly presented, and notes about the novelist reveal that he lived in this very apartment building while composing this novel.

I have to confess that the plot leaves me confused for most of the time. But that doesn’t affect my appreciation for the wonderful characters who appear throughout. Chief among this is Grace, a kind of double agent, whose tantalizing sexual prowess becomes an obsession of the narrator. There is also Larry, seemingly feckless ne’re-do-well, who turns out to own a lot of Berkeley property, including Clay’s own charmed Chandler apartments. The villain is also charmingly slimy, just like anyone who is the founder of "Jerry’s Drugs and More."

This novel is fun, and I will definitely look up the earlier volumes in the Clay Blackburn series. A blurb on the cover of this novel calls it “Berkeley Noir.” I am charmed with that notion.

Owen Hill