Sunday, May 29, 2011

Jacqueline Winspear sets Maisie against incipient fascists in thirties Cambridge.

I’ve read another of Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs mysteries, and this one is every bit as good as the others.

A Lesson in Secrets

Maisie Dobbs ended the last 1930s novel, The Mapping of Love and Death, in the arms of her handsome aristocratic lover, James; but in A Lesson in Secrets (323 pages, Harper, $25.99) he is at first nowhere to be found. Instead, Maisie is approached by a rather clumsy secret service agent (she knows they are following her) and asked to infiltrate a recently founded college in Cambridge in order to discover if they are conducting activities that could be said to put his majesty’s government at risk.

Maisie had done considerable academic work at Girton, in Cambridge, before setting up as a private investigator in London, and she quite likes the idea of dusting off her books and standing before philosophy students in this private college.

The college’s founder, Greville Liddicote, is an eccentric character even for the already eccentric academic world. A children’s book author, he has started the college with a pacifist mission. It seems that one of his publications at the time of the First World War had such a profound effect on the soldiers at the front that some simply put down their weapons and walked away from battle. Some of these were executed as deserters. In any event, though, the publication was stopped and Liddicote became something of an anti-war force all his own.

The college’s specialty is pacifist studies, and many of those working there share these beliefs most vigorously. When Greville is murdered in his office shortly after Maisie arrives to teach at the school, her focus shifts from uncovering covert activity to exposing a murderer.

First, of course, she has to decide who the murder is, and that allows her to snoop into all sorts of private college business.

She finds to her shock that the man whose financial support made the college possible was someone whose own son was a victim of Liddicote’s notorious novel. It seems that Dunstan Headley understood the message of Liddicote’s publication even if he lamented the loss it caused him and his family. His surviving son does not seem to be so generous, and he hates Liddicote both for the death of his brother and his pacifist messages. He thinks Germany has found a savior in the person of Adollf Hitler, and he would like to see Hitler’s policies adopted in England. He has linked up with an attractive female on the staff, and even before Maisie suspects that they might involved in the murder, she has been reporting on their fascist tendencies.

There are other faculty members that fascinate Maisie from both perspectives. Matthias Roth, a German who had joined Liddicote in his pacifist mission but who seemed to disagree with him vociferously about everything; Francesca Thomas, a very beautiful and well-dressed language teacher, who disappears regularly into London; and Rosemary Linden, Liddicote’s secretary who disappears immediately after the killing.

All these characters and the Cambridge setting make this an academic romp; but the politics of the thirties are richly painted, and the various motivations of the characters are dazzlingly developed. The ending is as right as it is well-crafted.

If you have time to yourself this summer, take along one of Winspear’s novels. Maisie Dobbs is the kind of friend everyone would like to have.

Jacqueline Winspear

Order a copy of A Lesson In Secrets from Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Ian Rankin retires Rebus and sets this tale of dirty cops in The Complaints.

I always enjoy Ian Rankin’s Scottish police tales, and this one is as good as any I’ve read.

The Complaints

In The Complaints (448 pages, Reagan Arthur Books, $24.99), Ian Rankin moves beyond John Rebus, who retired in the novel Doors Open, and opens what might become a new series centered on the fascinating Malcolm Fox. Fox works in the Complaints office, which investigates internal affairs and the police’s own wrongdoing. Needless to say, that places him in harm’s way almost automatically.

The plot of this latest thriller is very complicated, but suffice it to say that Fox himself gets implicated in some wrongdoing of his own, and in struggling his way out of the accusation, he finds that there are very few people in the force (or out of it) whom he can trust.

When his sister’s ne’re-do-well boyfriend is brutally murdered, Fox meets Jamie Breck, who is investigating that crime. But Fox has already been asked to investigate Breck on the charge of child pornography. As Fox finds himself becoming friends with Breck, he starts to realize that they have both been set up for a fall.

In the course of working out the plot, Rankin creates some wonderful characters. Fox himself, single (and still hurting from the breakup) and sober (and still salivating when he sees a vodka bottle), is wound so tight that he seems ready to explode. Breck, much cooler, explains his ease in tight situations to the hours he spends on a role-playing video game. The other cops in Complaints are fascinating, and so are the several female figures who conduct their own investigations of the two policemen.

One of these women, Annie Inglis, fascinates Fox, and they almost become close. But in the end something comes between them. Something similar happens with Caroline Stoddard, who is brought in to investigate both men. At a certain point, Fox has to decide whether she might offer the chance to escape the trap into which he has fallen. This is a gamble, but he decides that he can trust this woman. Whether or not he is right is part of the thrill of the story.

Rankin paints a wonderful picture of Edinburgh at the moment of the recent financial collapse. Everything that transpires is the result of a sudden drop in the economy and the collapse of the property market that results. People holding deeds to worthless building projects are liable to do some dastardly things, and Rankin loves nothing better than taking us into the backrooms to witness their sleazy dealings.

Some critics writing about this novel lament the absence of Rebus. But I enjoy seeing Rankin doing something new and figuring out how to handle this new assortment of characters he has introduced. I have to say, Rankin never disappoints. This is a novel to stack up against his best.

Ian Rankin

The Complaints is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Tom Shone writes about 12 steps to self awareness.

I have heard of Tom Shone, but this is the first novel of his I have read. I enjoyed it.

In the Rooms

In the Rooms (352 pages, Thomas Dunn, $24.99) is set in New York. Patrick Miller, a literary agent, has moved there from London and he is having some trouble getting his career off the ground.

One desultory lunchtime, he gets a big break, he thinks, when he sees the reclusive writer Douglas Kelsey walking through Washington Square. He thinks nothing of following the writer, and when he turns into a vaguely labeled academic building, Patrick tries to think of some way to introduce himself.

It does not take Patrick too long to realize that he has stumbled into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. If the structure of such a meeting wouldn’t be enough to tip Patrick off, he is so aggressively welcomed, or so it seems to him, that he knows right away exactly where he is. But because he sees Kelsey slumped in the corner, and because the woman who is welcoming him is rather attractive, he makes everyone believe that he knows where he is and he wants to be there.

This creates certain problems for Patrick, who doesn’t think of himself as an alcoholic, not least of all because he finds himself attracted not only to Lola, the woman who greeted him, but to some of her friends and others at the meeting. He knows enough about alcoholics to know that they do not appreciate looky-loos; but even as he keeps persuading himself that he doesn’t need a twelve step program, he starts demonstrating that his relation to alcohol is anything but healthy.

As Patrick screws up his life in this way, he does manage to meet up with Kelsey, and he even, against all odds, manages to secure a deal for the much anticipated third novel. Kelsey makes certain demands on Patrick, and he is quick to agree to them; but because of the degree of subterfuge in his life, and because he cannot be honest even with himself, he loses control of some of those details, and Kelsey gets dragged into a bidding war that he had hoped to avoid.

Almost like clockwork then, Kelsey falls off the wagon, just about at the time that Patrick starts to realize that he belongs in AA himself. This is not before he has alienated his friends and come close to losing his job. What saves him, as it saves the alcoholics who are able to be saved, is that he hits bottom. That isn’t pretty, but it gives him a sense of how very much worse things could be.

Shone writes compellingly about drunkenness and about the struggle to escape it. In addition to Patrick, we see others who have been helped by the hokey program that AA offers. Many of them don’t even know why Alcoholics Anonymous works for them, they just know that it does.

Tom Shone

Get a copy of In The Rooms at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.