Sunday, August 18, 2013

Jacqueline Winspear creates in Maisie Dobbs an inspired detective.


Maisie Dobbs

As the first volume of a now several-volume series, Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs (294 pages, Penguin, $15) sets up an important back-story of the eponymously named heroine.  Maise was born just before the start of the twentieth century, and she spent her formative years in service.  From the first, however, she showed intelligence and verve; and before long she emerged from the downstairs world to take lessons and eventually inspiration from the local professor, Maurice Blache, who dabbles in detection himself.  He gives Maisie and impressive reading list, which she attacks on top of all her housework. Eventually this earns her admission to Girton College at Cambridge, just before the outbreak of World War I.

This novel actually flashes back to these wartime experiences, but tells us Maisie's story in the present of 1929 as she is setting herself up as a private investigator.  With the help of her sometime assistant, Billy Beale, Maisie attempts to discover the truth behind a wife’s seeming infidelity.  This search, enhanced by Maisie’s astonishing gift for almost visionary inspiration, helped by her facility at mediation and projection, leads her to some hideous mistreatment of veteran soldiers who have emerged from the war maimed and depressed.  As Maisie looks into a supposed retreat for these men, she flashes back to her own wartime experience.

In the war, Maisie volunteered as a nurse, and not long into her service she meets the dashing and delightful Simon, whose own experiences of the war turn out to have shaped her understanding of love and loss.  Without spoiling these rich chapters, I can say that they have a direct bearing on what is happening in the present, and as Maisie struggles to understand one series of events, she finds herself working through some of the implications of the earlier experiences.

Maisie Dobbs is an accomplished and evocative novel.  My guess is that later volumes in this series,  all of which I hope to read, will deal similarly with this period between the wars, often looking back but sometimes looking forward as well.  Maisie Dobbs is a detective to put with the best of them.

Jacqueline Winspear

Maisie Dobbs is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Anne Korkeakivi writes an intimate thriller.

An Unexpected Guest (277 pages, Back Bay Books, $15), a debut novel from Anne Korkeakivi, tells one day in the life of the wife of a British foreign minister stationed in Paris.  Asked to host a dinner party at the last minute, Clare Montrose finds herself having to prepare an occasion that will determine whether or not her husband gets his next posting, a promotion to ambassador in a new location.  She goes into automatic pilot—organizing the staff, deciding on a menu, and working out details with the staff of the embassy, where the dinner was originally to have been held.

As she wakes in the morning and organizes her day, another two complications begin to envelop her.  First, she discovers that her husband’s likely posting, if the dinner is a success, will be to Dublin. The dread she feels at this suggestion at first remains merely atmospheric, but it is real enough.  She dreads the name of the city and to go there, she imagines, will drive her mad.   Second, she has a call from the younger of her two teenage sons, the fifteen year-old James, or Jamie, who is in private school in London.  He seems to be in some kind of trouble and is heading home. She doesn’t know whether he has been expelled or has simply absconded, but in either case, she is terribly worried.

As the day advances, she proceeds in her dinner preparations, always recognizing how very important this dinner is to her husband.  Edward has been her partner for twenty years, and she loves him deeply.  But she harbors secrets from the past that she worries might destroy their relationship.  She plans the dinner with care—deciding to choose the vegetables and the flowers herself—and in a wonderful scene she works out details with the very talented chef Matilde, a Swiss and Scottish woman who steals every scene of which she is a part.

As she attends to the various details of the dinner, she also deals with the fact of her son’s misbehavior, the details of which she seems unable to discover, and, shortly later, his very presence at the minister’s residence.  She doesn’t want him to upset the dinner plans—it means far too much to her husband to let her son disrupt the evening—so she pleads with him to hide out in his room.  But this doesn’t stop her worrying about what he might have done or what might be necessary to get him back in school.

At the same time, she allows herself to call up the distant past and remember her own youthful transgression, a rather grand political gesture, it turns out, that led her to Dublin and to activities that she worries may have meant the deaths of innocent people.  This is a rather damning interpretation of what in reality seems to have been a young girl’s infatuation with a firebrand from the IRA who persuaded her to do something down right foolish.  That she did it, and did it successfully, is all a measure of her feelings for the young man in question, a young Irish man, who could persuade her to do almost anything.

That these memories are nagging at her more aggressively because of her husband’s Irish posting does nothing to reassure her or weaken their intensity, in fact they build to a climax, almost precisely when the dinner party is meant to be coming perfectly together.

The book is described as a thriller, and this is the thrill:  will the dinner party come off as flawlessly as it needs to in order for Edward to get the Dublin ambassadorship? can Jamie be put back on the right track? and will the memories of Clare's political past emerge to destroy the realities of her present.  Anne Korkeakivi does a fantastic job of balancing these possibilities and making it very thrilling indeed to see what she succeeds in accomplishing in a world as harrowing as the one she inhabits.  This is a great first novel that bodes only better things to come.

Anne Korkeakivi

An Unexpected Guest is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Thomas Perry writes another fascinating thriller.


The Boyfriend

In Thomas Perry’s new novel, The Boyfriend (228 pages, Mysterious Press, $25), a handsome young-looking guy in his later twenties is murdering young female escorts in various cities around the country.  When the parents of one victim approach the private detective Jack Till, a former police detective, they seem willing to pay whatever it will take to find their daughter’s killer.

Jack takes on the case unwillingly: he’s not sure he can discover anything beyond what the police have already found.  But when he finds that the police have been slipshod in various ways, he gets more and more intrigued with the details of this case.  When he discovers that several girls look almost the same—thin strawberry blonds with blue eyes and distinguishing jewelry—he thinks he is on the trail of the killer, but still he cannot make any sense of the meaning of the victims.

After some close calls in various cities, Jack starts to notice that other murders, often political or business-oriented, and usually very major murders that are like gang hits, are happening in the same cities as the escorts' murders and he starts to connect them.

He figures out that the murderer somehow hooks up with girls, probably online, and then stays with them as long as it takes to carry out his real job.  And then, before leaving, he kills the girls who have hosted him so that there is no real record of his even having been in the city.

As the novel progresses, we get the back story and some of the emotional involvement of the boyfriend himself and some of his victims.  Perry is great at following out the implications of his tale, and at a certain point Jack knows he has the murderer cornered, perhaps with a victim about to be executed, and he is without police back up.  That’s when things get really exciting.

Perry is an imaginative novelist with a hard-bitten style that is hard to resist.  I was pleased to happen upon this novel, and I look forward to reading some of his other nineteen novels.

Thomas Perry

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