Friday, July 22, 2011

Peter Lovesey’s Peter Diamond confronts his own phobias

Peter Lovesey writes a good mystery, and this one is entertaining on several levels.


What could mean more fun than a mystery set in a theater? Perhaps a mystery set in the wonderful eighteenth-century spa town, Bath? In Stagestruck (325 pages, Soho Crime, $26), Peter Lovesey does both. Peter Diamond, a middle-aged detective with a strange phobia about theaters, is called in to investigate when a high-publicity star runs off the stage screaming on opening night in Bath’s Theatre Royal.

Diamond has to force himself to enter the theater, but when he does, he finds a cast of characters—players, managers, dressers, and costume crew—that are as eccentric and self-important as any group he might encounter. They are also protective of their own, competitive, and, Diamond suspects, vindictive; and this very soon becomes a case of who planted the caustic soda that caused the popular star to run off the stage screaming as her face burned.

In his own office Diamond has quite a cast of characters too, from the smoldering Ingebord, who is razor sharp in her observations and quick in her responses, to Horatio Dawkins, the newest member of CID, who couches every response in theatrical language and who seems to love every little assignment he is given.

Not soon after the investigations into what happened to the actress, other tragedies occur. The dresser, who applied the make-up that some suspect harmed the star, is found dangling in the staging wires, an apparent suicide. And then, just when the earlier victim has given up her lawsuit against the theater and has tried to make amends for her actions, the young starlet is found murdered too.

Diamond has all he can do to run this investigation because every time he enters a theater, his heart starts beating and he is gasping for breath. This makes for some cruel jokes at his expense, but he is determined to get to the bottom of this mystery; and as the novel proceeds he actually confronts these inner demons.

The case eventually turns up some surprises, and the guilty parties emerge from the most surprising locales. Lovesey knows plotting, and this novel is masterful in that way. It is also masterful as the dramatization of theater life. The company is trying to mount a production of Christopher Isherwood’s I am a Camera, and that in itself is interesting, both from the point of view of theater history and from that of the notion of criminality itself.

Peter Lovesey has written a great novel for summer reading. If you can’t make it to England this summer, at least you can read about a couple of complicated weeks in Bath.

Peter Lovesey

Stagestruck is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Josh Lanyon tells a gripping gay mystery.

I came upon Josh Lanyon’s many gay novels and short stories while searching for something to read on my Kindle. I assumed they would be a quick read and I hoped they would be amusing. It turns out that they are actually quite good. The trad ition of gay mysteries goes back to Joseph Hansen and beyond, and I am pleased to see that Lanyon is keeping up this tradition.

Come Unto These Yellow Sands

Come Unto These Yellow Sands (ebook-$4.50) is one in a long line of novels and short stories by Josh Lanyon. In this murder mystery, a professor at a small college in Maine is gay, and he is involved in a relationship with the local police chief. Lanyon takes the occasion to write some touching love scenes between the men, but they are in good taste and they are dramatically a part of what is happening in the novel as a whole. The novel is an intriguing murder mystery, and the tension between Swift, the professor, and his boyfriend Max, is truly entertaining.

What happens is that Tad, one of Swift’s favorite students from his poetry writing class, turns up outside his office looking beat up and in need of help. Swift offers Tad the key to his place on an island off the coast, and only later discovers that the boy’s father has been murdered and Swift allows himself to keep mum when Max tells him that he is looking for the boy, and when he comes clean a few days later, Max is so furious that he almost books Swift for obstructing justice. Swift apologizes, but that doesn’t stop him from following leads that he discovers at the university and talking to people who were close to Tad there.

Lanyon is great at creating the college context and the mood that haunts creative writing programs especially. When one of the professors is gay, as Swift is, students sometimes suffer indirectly for their interest in the topic. Tad has suffered because of his interest in poetry, not just because it is not a sport or a physical challenge, but also because the poetry teacher is gay. Lanyon handles these themes well and makes a powerful political statement by means of his deft dramatization.

When finally the evil-doer is discovered and the boy exonerated, Swift and Max are able to celebrate together and to move forward as the distinguished couple they are.
This is an eminently readable and at times quite compelling novel. I can’t rank it among Lanyon’s works because I haven’t read any others yet. But I certainly intend to do so soon.

Come Unto These Yellow Sands is available at Powell's and Amazon.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

J. Courtney Sullivan tells a riveting family saga.

I enjoyed J. Courtney Sullivan’s Commencement, and did not hesitate to pick up this volume, which concentrates on family members in an Irish Catholic clan.


J. Courtney Sullivan’s Maine (400 pages, Knopf, $25.95) is a wonderful novel about family life and the tension between generations in a family where the love is so strong it almost destroys them.

The novel describes a Massachusetts family from the perspective of their summer house in Maine. Alice Kelleher, the widowed matriarch, is an angry and guilty woman who drowns her sorrows in alcohol every day, missing her husband and wishing that her daughters would treat her with more kindness. When the reader witnesses her treatment of them—the kinds of bitter and biting things she says to them (about their weight, their children, the mismanagement of their lives)—it’s really a surprise that any of them are speaking to her.

Daniel Kelleher, her husband, had been a very kindly man, and everyone in the family misses him; but no one misses him more than Kathleen, the oldest daughter, who fled to California after his death (with money he left her) and established a worm-compost farm in Sonoma County, California. Her partner in crime was an ex-hippie called Arlo, with whom she has lived a decade of sober (literally) and profitable honest living.

Clare, the second daughter, lives close to Alice in Massachusetts, but avoids her as much as possible. We hear about her primarily indirectly. Her husband and Alice do not get along, and her children, fascinating in their ways, play only a minor role in the family drama.

Much more involved are Pat, Alice and Daniel’s only son, and his wife Ann Marie. Ann Marie is a Southie, and she felt that marrying Pat was a great opportunity. He clearly loves her, but everyone else in the family treats her like an interloper.
Ann Marie is one of the women from whose perspective the story is told. The others are Alice (of course), Kathleen, and Maggie, Kathleen’s 32-year-old daughter.

Maggie is in a state of crisis from the opening of the novel. Her boyfriend Gabe is utterly unsatisfactory, but just as the novel opens she has discovered that she is pregnant and is trying to tell Gabe about this. He is so disagreeable that she cannot say anything, and she finds his breaking up with her is both an advantage and a liability. She goes to Maine as a way of working out her thinking about all of this.

Another player is a kindly young local Catholic priest in Maine, to whom Alice has become close. In a fit of devotion to him, recognizing in her heart how important the church has been to her throughout her life, but especially since her husband died, she alters her will to leave the Maine property to the local church. The priest is grateful, but he assumes that she has consulted her family. She hasn’t, and when various members find out, there is a great deal of family strife to deal with.

These two main threads—Maggie’s pregnancy and Alice’s will—create enough drama for any family; and in this hard-drinking and articulately spiteful group of relations, there is no limit to what is said, or screamed, in reaction to life's eccentricities.

Sullivan is great at creating this family and the tension that hold them together even as it nearly drives them apart. She gets inside each of the characters she explores, with the result that the reader can actually understand what these tensions are and why they matter.

Maine is important to the narrative as well, and it feels like one of the main characters at times. Sullivan’s sense of place gives this novel a solidity that the personalities alone would not give it.

I hope it is clear that I think this is a wonderful novel.

J Courtney Sullivan

Maine is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Rosamund Lupton tells an eerie tale of sisters.

This did not sound like the usual mystery thriller. In fact the premise is rather strange. Still, it is a fascinating tale.


Rosamund Lupton’s Sister (336 pages, Crown, $24) tells this story of Beatrice, a young Brit who has moved back to London from New York, where she was attempting to start a career. She has come to London because her sister Tess has gone missing. She has a bad feeling about this development; and when not too long after her arrival in London, Tess’s body turns up in an unused lavatory at Hyde Park, Beatrice is on a mission.

The novel is told in the form of long letters that Beatrice is writing to her dead sister. She and Tess were close enough to be in touch every day, through email and texting, and Bea feels the loss of Tess intensely. But when the police report the coroner’s statement, in which Tess’s death was determined to be a suicide, Bea becomes determined to prove that Tess was murdered.

In order to accomplish this, Bea moves into Tess’s apartment and begins living her life. She finds her sister’s friends, and she discovers that she was pregnant. A student in art school, Tess had become involved with one of her professors, and he was among the first that Bea considers responsible for her sister’s murder.

In the course of several months, however, several possible candidates for the crime present themselves. There is Simon, a jealous art-student boyfriend; the psychiatrist, whom Bea suspects may have provided the drugs that were discovered in Tess’s system; and even a full-time nanny, with whom Tess attended childbirth classes.

What happens as Bea explores the farthest reaches of Tess’s private experience is that she discovers more about her sister than she had ever imagined. This increased knowledge is really part of the point, and Bea herself becomes a different person as she becomes reacquainted with the sister she didn’t really know.

This story of sisterhood and the family, which emerges in bits and snatches as Bea reflects on what is happening to her, is rich and wonderful. Few mysteries develop a personal tale more moving than this. Lupton, a first-time novelist, is wonderful at probing deeply into the guilt of the sister who left home and thought that her sibling would be fine.

As the novel builds to its devastating conclusion, it begins to feel as if all the assumptions of the narrative are now up for grabs, and the closing pages open whole new worlds of possibility. One of Lupton’s great talents is her ability to plot a mystery such as this, and if it not such a great surprise who the murderer might be, it is truly amazing how that knowledge emerges in the end.

This is a great first novel that I am happy to recommend.

Rosamund Lupton

Sister is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.