Saturday, February 25, 2012

Sue Grafton makes her way through the alphabet with great aplomb.

I love Sue Grafton’s alphabet mysteries. I am not sure that I have read every single one, but I’ve read many. And this one is a great addition to the series.

V is for Vengeance

V is for Vengeance (437 pages, Putnam, $27.95) is the twenty-second of Sue Grafton’s alphabet mysteries. All feature Kinsey Milhone as the private investigator, and all are set in the coastal California town of Santa Teresa, which seems for all the world a replica of Santa Barbara.

I am tempted to call Sue Grafton the Jane Austen of mystery writers. Like Austen, Grafton narrows her focus and develops her story in local and relatively confined ways. Within that, though, she tells remarkable stories of human interest. And although she doesn’t relate to the marriage plot as a formal device, she does write about strong women who are willing to defy convention to make a life for themselves.

Kinsey Milhone is one of the great heroines of American fiction. In her faded jeans, turtleneck sweaters, and boots, she is ready for any crisis. She keeps herself fueled with junk food and energized by endless cups of coffee, but this never slows her down or makes her any less than keen to take on the bad guys.

In this novel, her outrage when she sees a woman shoplifting in a Santa Teresa department store—she reports the theft to the saleswoman whom she knows—leads Kinsey into the dark and deeply complicated world of retail theft. Aside from reporting the astonishing figure that represents the loss from such theft each year—way into the billions—she also shows how complicated a system is involved and how ultimately violent and victimizing that system can be. When so much money is involved, tempers can flare to say the least. Kinsey finds herself over her head very quickly, but that is often where she prefers to be. We watch her struggle to make sense of a world that is sordid and mystifying.

In this novel, however, Grafton leads us inside the world of crime so that we can start to distinguish between villains and heroes in that world as well. Combine that with trying to decide between dependable and corrupt cops, and you start to see how much Kinsey is up against even in sleepy Santa Teresa.

The story also involves a wealthy society woman, Nora, whose son has been a victim of some of the rougher effects of unpaid gambling debts—he is thrown off the top of a five-story hotel in Las Vegas. Nora finds herself confronting the same world that Kinsey has confronted but from exactly the other side. As we watch these two powerful women deal with crises in their lives, we can also see what makes Grafton such a strong and popular novelist.

Grafton doesn’t pull any punches, and she doesn’t ask her characters to give into convention because it might be good for them. Instead they challenge the rules, in their different ways, and they are rewarded as a result. If Nora’s reward defies the status quo of “happily ever after,” Kinsey’s does as well. Nora may get the man, in other words, but Kinsey gets the goods. And that’s really all she’s ever wanted.

Sue Grafton

V is for Vengeance is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

P.D. James writing an addition to Pride and Prejudice!

When I read about this new novel by the 91-year-old mystery writer P.D. James, I downloaded it to my Kindle and started reading right away. It’s a real treat.

Death Comes to Pemberley

P.D. James’s Jane Austen mystery, Death Comes to Pemberley (304 pages, Knopf, $25.95) takes place is 1803, and Elizabeth and Darcy have been living at his Pemberley estate for several years. Jane and Bingley are settled nearby and come to visit often. The Darcys have two children, Fitzwilliam and Charles, and they are described as perfect little boys, of a kind, in fact that exist nowhere else in Austen.

James is kind to readers who may not have read Austen’s novel in some time. She rehearses a lot of what happened in that novel, and she bases everything that happens in this one on events and characters that Austen already created.

James has some fun too in linking this novel to Austen’s other novels. We hear about Anne Elliott and her father and sister (from Persuasion), at one point, and at another we hear about Robert and Harriet Martin, friends of the Knightleys (from Emma). This is a lot of fun, and what James does with those connections is utterly sensible.

The murder mystery is a bit of a stretch, but as I said on Facebook, it is better than Zombies. P.D. James shows enormous respect for Austen’s novel, and she gives her story details that are in keeping with Austen’s own tale.

The villain, once again, is Wickham; and this time he is suspected of murdering his friend Captain Denny in the woodland near Pemberley. Of course, Lydia verges on hysteria, and the older sisters do what they can to calm her down. But Wickham is charged and James introduces us to authentic details of early nineteenth-century jurisprudence.

James introduces a couple of new characters. One, Alveston, a handsome London lawyer who is in line for an inheritance, is courting the now delightful Georgiana, Darcy’s sister; and another, dying from a mysterious illness, is the young farmer, Will, who is a tenant on Darcy’s estate. He and his sister Louisa become central to the plot.

But most of the characters are familiar from Austen’s novel, and they do little that is out of character. Jane is nice to everyone; Elizabeth is witty and challenging. Darcy is supercilious at times, and Bingely is a genuinely good guy.

The story turns, though, on the character of Wickham, and his closing speech is one that is meant to rehabilitate him for both novels, I think.

P.D. James sets herself quite a challenge, trying both to rewrite Austen’s novel and to write it in Austen’s own style. James didn’t say that was her intention, but critics have insisted that you could almost be reading Austen as you get lost in the narrative. I don’t agree with that at all—Austen’s style is inimitable, as countless imitators have realized—but that doesn’t mean that this novel isn’t vintage P.D. James. It is that, and as such it is a novel to be read and reread. I recommend it!

P. D. James

Death Comes to Pemberley available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Tessa Harris posits the origins of forensics.

I could not resist a novel that purported to examine eighteenth-century medical practice and the world’s first coroner. This novel fulfills its promise and does even a bit more.

The Anatomist’s Apprentice

In Tessa Harris’s debut novel, The Anatomist’s Apprentice (310 pages, Kensington Mystery, $15), Thomas Silkwood, a real eighteenth-century scientist, is just becoming fascinated with the science of anatomy. He is an American who has come to England to study death. That is, he is interested in looking at the tissue of the deceased and figuring out what science has taught him that can give him clues to the cause of death.

Thomas is a handsome and slightly other-worldly scientist type who lives in his laboratory and talks to his pet white rat. His mentor is a well-known surgeon who thought nothing of buying dead bodies off the street for the purposes of anatomical study. Now that he is losing his sight, he offers Thomas what help he can with his other senses, such as his ears and his nose, and times those aids become invaluable.

Before much has happened in the novel, Thomas gets involved with a suspicious death at a country house near Oxford. A young earl is suddenly taken ill and dies in a scene spectacularly grotesque and painstakingly described. Bulging eyes and foaming at the mouth suggest something suddenly shutting down the body’s functions, and poison is suggested by more than one observer. But try as he might, Thomas cannot determine the exact cause of death, and instead he finds himself having to admit to dismiss various potential causes for the very reason that his science proves them untenable.

It matters more and more to Thomas as he finds himself sexually attracted to the earl’s sister, a married woman by the name of Lady Lydia Farrell. Thomas and Lady Farrel herself imagine that her aggressive and unpleasant husband, Captain Michael Farrel, may have been the cause of the earl’s death. After all, he was set to inherit, through his wife, the estate and all its appurtenances. But Thomas, for concrete reasons, comes to think he is not the murderer, even though he is sure that a murder has been committed.

As Captain Farrel’s trial approaches, Thomas tries to race against the clock to find out something more about the cause of death, but when he does, the clues send him in a direction he had no desire to pursue, and it leaves him further than ever from his darling Lydia. When Thomas is seen emerging form the Lady’s bedroom late at night, servants talk and Thomas ends up being made to feel unwelcome at the house.

The murder is finally solved, and Thomas and Lydia are allowed to decide whether they can allow themselves to mean anything to each other given all the ways in which they are better off apart: class, nationality, and married state, for starters.

Tessa Harris is obviously fascinated with the science she has to describe, and she does a good job of making clear what kinds of things Thomas knows and what he doesn’t know. As a romance the story leaves a lot to be desired, and that is in part because Lady Lydia does not seem like a fully realized character. She is fine as Thomas’s fantasy, because in that she is only what he imagines. But when Harris tries to give us her perspective or suggest how she feels, I was not fully persuaded. But I am also ready to give the author the benefit of the doubt and to hope that the next time out she will concentrate more on this side of things. In this novel, she has given us a lot, and she has also given us a lot to look forward to.

Tessa Harris

The Anatomist’s Apprentice
is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Héctor Tobar writes a novel diagnosing the ills of LA

This novel sounded almost too good to be true when I read about it. But it turns out to be almost as good as the hype suggests.

The Barbarian Nurseries

Héctor Tobar’s amazing The Barbarian Nurseries (432 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27) is set in Orange County, and for the first half of the novel, we hardly leave the stately and beautifully decorated McMansion of Scott Torres and his wife Maureen Thompson. The Torres-Thompsons have three children: Brandon 11, Keenan 8, and Samantha, a toddler. They also have a live-in housekeeper called Araceli.

When the novel opens, we understand that there is trouble in paradise. There used to be a lively nanny and a competent gardener who were part of the household, but we quickly learn that Scott’s income has dropped—he was a software pioneer who did well early on, but once his business was bought out and he became an employee in his own firm, the money just wasn’t the same—and he and Maureen are having trouble maintaining their standard of living. The two boys are in expensive private schools, and as their bedroom, groaning with possessions, demonstrates, they have been lavished with books, and puzzles, and toys of all kinds, primarily educational.

As Scott tries to retrench, Maureen doesn’t quite get it at first, and in efforts to save money, she spends even more; and this leads to increasing conflict until it seems that the marriage is doomed and the couple will hurt each other before it ends.

Witness to all this is Araceli, an educated immigrant from Mexico City who has for four years been holding this household together. Her energy and her attention to detail are amazing. On the two days every two weeks that she has “off,” the family practically collapses. Araceli is also witness to the escalating violence of words between Scott and Maureen, and she is almost not surprised when it turns so bad that a coffee table is shattered and the couple in tears.

Imagine her shock the next morning, though, when both adults and the baby are simply gone. She has no prior experience that could have prepared her for this. If she was ever left alone with the children, there were elaborate schedules and lists. And this time there is nothing. It turns out that the parents absconded separately, each needing to “get away” and each assuming that the other was there to pick up the pieces.

Brandon and Keenan are wonderful kids, but after a couple of days without their parents, they start to get crazy, and Araceli is beside herself. There might be many things she could have done, but what she actually does is to take this kids on a bus and train and bus again, into the depths of Los Angeles, in hopes of finding the boys' grandfather.

What she finds, instead of the grandfather, aside from a fascinating trip for the boys, is a lot of trouble for herself. The second half of the novel follows the fallout, and Araceli is accused of kidnapping and child endangerment, and the parents gradually come to confront their own culpability in this terrible mix-up.

As the novel proceeds, Araceli finds herself deep in the corridors of the American justice system as Scott and Maureen try to put their broken life back together. All ends for the best, but Tobar has taken us through so many different LAs that we might not be sure where we are.

The novel is well-written and gripping at times. Tobar may be a little heavy-handed with the “moral of the story,” but once he has written a novel with this much insight and depth, he probably has earned the right to tell us what it means.

Héctor Tobar

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