Mediocre Mysteries

I recently read the first books in a couple mystery series, and they didn’t impress me. It’s possible that the later books improve, but I won’t be continuing the series.

Still Life by Louise Penny

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In this mystery, murder comes to a small town in Quebec and wise Inspector Gamache comes down to investigate. Paintings are a major clue and plot device as a surprising number of the characters are artists. The setting is preciously picturesque, and the portrayal of gay characters seems a bit stereotyped. The villain, when finally revealed, is almost cartoonishly evil. I was constantly annoyed by the too-stupid-to-live new girl on the team, who never listened, learned or improved. It’s also possible that dour, plodding voice of the audiobook reader soured me on this one.

In the Last Analysis by Amanda Cross

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The detective in this book is an English professor whose close friend is a phychoanalyst who has had a patient murdered on his couch. The characters talk about psychoanalysis in a way that seemed very stigmatizing to me. I was intrigued by this series because I like the idea of an academic as a detective. But the thing that bugged me the most about this book is that all the characters talk the same way–like they were all English professors, full of pontificating allusions and SAT vocab words. And the solution to the mystery is convoluted in a way that seemed silly and unrealistic to me.

Obedience

Obedience by Will Lavender

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This thriller is about a college Logic class given a kind of forensic assignment that turns out to be more than just a game. They are told to solve a crime and find a missing person who is supposed to be murdered at the end of the term. The author attended my alma mater, and I could recognize it clearly as the inspiration for the setting, which was kind of cool for me. The book is a mind-fuck, as you’re constantly wondering what is real and what is only a story. I’d call it the undergraduate version of The Magus, which is much longer, more intense, and complex (but maybe more sexist).

Career of Evil

Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith

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This is the third Cormoran Strike mystery, penned by JK Rowling under her pseudonym. It begins with a severed leg delivered to Robin, Strike’s assistant. Strike identifies three men from his past who might want to hurt his reputation this way, and most of the book concerns investigating them, and flashbacks to their original crimes. Third-person narration alternates between Strike, Robin, and the killer, which makes for some pretty chilling passages. As I speculated earlier, the death of Strike’s mother did come up again, although this novel doesn’t completely resolve that plotline. Robin’s impending wedding creates another source of drama and tension between her and Strike. The final twist was just right–not so far out of the blue that it seemed impossible, but clever enough that I didn’t guess it. I was intrigued throughout. Robin and Strike are compelling characters, and their relationship develops a lot in this volume. It was a thoroughly enjoyable mystery I’d recommend to anyone who likes that genre.

The Secret Place

The Secret Place by Tana French

51-xkseb0bl-_sx324_bo1204203200_I’ve really enjoyed Tana French’s mysteries, set in Ireland. I think she’s my favorite mystery writer right now. I really like how she shows how her characters experience happiness, even joy, and how that joy is often directly related to their tragic ends. Her mysteries seem to focus on very insular groups, tight-knit families and clusters of friends. French sometimes takes apart different social communities, like the low-income neighborhood of Faithful Place, or in this case, a high-class boarding school for girls. The wide range of the communities that French has examined over five books is kind of impressive. French’s mysteries are books that a reader of literary novels can appreciate because they’re very character-driven and full of stellar prose.

French chooses a different detective protagonist for each novel, usually one who was a supporting character in a previous book. In The Secret Place, that’s Stephen Moran, who had helped Frank Mackey bag the murderer in Faithful Place. Frank’s daughter Holly is also a main character in this book. In this book, narration alternates between Stephen (first person, present time) and Holly and her friends (third person, the year leading up to the murder).

The murder was a prep school boy killed on the grounds of an elite girls’ boarding school. A year after the murder, Holly comes to Stephen with a message she saw posted on the school’s secret-sharing board: “I know who killed him.” Stephan and the prickly female lead detective, Conway, interview Holly and her friends and enemies to discover who posted the message and what she knows. In alternating chapters, we learn about Holly’s friends and their world at the boarding school, the events that made them so close, and the fissures in their friendships that led up to the murder.

The sixth book in the series, The Trespasser, is out this month. I’ll be excited to pick it up!

Reconstructing Amelia

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight

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This book is about a mother investigating the death of her teenage daughter, convinced she did not commit suicide. She uncovers a conspiracy in her daughter’s fancy private school to protect the students involved in secret clubs that involve hazing, blackmail, and vicious harassment. In the end, the mother’s own history is revealed as a contributing factor in the complicated sequence of events that led to her daughter’s death.

The point of view alternates between the past and present and between the mother and daughter, and includes lots of emails, text message conversations, and facebook status updates. This format allows for lots of surprises and reversals. The book definitely kept my attention, and the ending was something I didn’t expect or anticipate. The book has been compared to Gone Girl, and I think in terms of the structure, pacing, and “thriller” genre, that’s accurate. But I think the target of this book–privileged teens forming exclusive clubs–is a much easier one than that of Gone Girl, a book that takes on the terror at the heart of marriage that comes from the total unknowability of the other.

Dublin Murder Squad mysteries 1-4

I’ve read the first four books of this series now. They’re good meaty mysteries set in contemporary Ireland. Each book has a first person narrator, a member of Dublin’s police department trying to solve a case that he or she has a particular connection to, that hits home for that person because of his or her past. As the series progresses, each new book is narrated by a character who had been introduced in the previous book. I appreciate that the endings aren’t overly neat and tidy. I listened to the books on audio and the readers all had nice accents.

One issue that several of the books address is development and economic collapse, and their effect on many different stakeholders. French tackles this issue in a nuanced way that doesn’t necessarily make anyone “good” or “bad.” Some examples: the archeological site in In the Woods that will be paved over for a road. The manor house in The Likeness that the owner wants to make a commune for his friends but the community wants to make a resort to revitalize the village. The urban despair of Faithful Place. The dishonest developers and shoddy houses in the unfinished subdivision and the unemployed father in Broken Harbor.

In the Woods by Tana French

51VBtIu7KELRob and his partner Cassie investigate a murder of a young girl near an archeological site. The location is near the place where Rob himself disappeared for several days when he was a child. He has no memory of the incident, but his friends never returned. Cassie emerges as the real hero of this book. She takes care of Rob through his breakdown and solves the case.

The Likeness by Tana French

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So far this is my favorite book of the series. Cassie, Rob’s partner from In the Woods, narrates. The premise is kind of farfetched: a body is found, and Cassie just happens to be a dead ringer for the victim. So the department decides to pull an undercover operation, and pretend that the victim survived, sending Cassie in to gather information. She enmeshes herself in the victim’s tightknit friends and roommates, and kind of falls in love with the dead woman’s life.

Faithful Place by Tana French

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Frank Mackey, head of undercover, returns to his home neighborhood for the first time in years when a suitcase belonging to his old girlfriend is found in an abandoned house. He follows its clues and discovers her body. He has to question his own family and encounter again the alcoholism and domestic violence that he escaped years ago. Frank makes a good narrator because he has a great sense of humor that he uses to charm information out of reluctant witnesses.

Broken Harbor by Tana French

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Scorcher Kennedy, a hotshot detective with a great solve rate returns to the beach town where his mother killed herself to solve a triple homicide: two children and their father are dead; the mother barely survived. One major topic is mental illness and the stigma surrounding it. I particularly appreciated passages that showed the flaws in the doctrine of “positive thinking.” I was struck with the way the story portrayed the vulnerability of affluence, of people who focus on appearances.

Mind-benders

I’ve decided to start grouping books and writing reviews of more than one book at once occasionally. The main reason for this new format is that my backlog of books to review is out of control. But I also realized that grouping books allows for interesting comparisons and categorizations.

These two books turn the truth on its head several times and make you wonder repeatedly what’s going on.

The Uses of Enchantment by Heidi Julavits

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A teenage girl disappears and mysteriously returns claiming she had been abducted. She begins psychiatric counseling, where she finally recants her story and admits she ran away. The revelation tears apart her family, while her psychiatrist writes a book inspired by her case. Years later, Mary’s mother dies without reconciling with her, and she comes back to her hometown for the funeral.

Lots of books alternate between two narratives (past and present, two characters’ points of view, etc), but this is the only one I can think of that alternates between three narratives, from three different points in time and three different perspectives. Mary’s story in the present as she endures her mother’s funeral and confronts her past, her psychiatrist’s notes of his sessions with her,and most mysteriously, “what might have happened” when Mary disappeared. This format really amplifies the mystery and left me with tons of questions–in a good way.

A major question of the novel is about how much we can trust psychiatrists, who sometimes interpret our stories in ways that can be self-serving, and call us crazy or ‘difficult’ if we don’t agree with them. There were a lot of gender politics at play here. Mary’s doctor is compared to Freud, who pathologized his female patients’ sexuality, and Mary’s mother preferred to believe her daughter was a liar than that she had been raped.

The Magus by John Fowles

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This gigantic book is about a guy who goes to Greece to teach at a school on a remote island in the 1950’s. He meets this old rich dude who proceeds to fuck with his head in every way possible. They have lots of philosophical discussions about God, mythology, trust. About 5 times, the young teacher catches the rich old dude in a lie of some kind, each bigger than the last, until the lie is a conspiracy that encompasses both their entire lives. It was impressive how many times the truth turned in on itself in this book. The protagonist is a major asshole in his relationships with women. He acts like he expects sympathy anyway, but it’s not clear to me how much we readers are supposed to empathize with him or judge him. I guess he mostly gets his just deserts, but still, it’s all kinds of messed up. The ending is about as open and closure-free as they come, the kind you could call happy if you read it in a good mood and bitter if you read it when depressed.