Tag Archives: Mystery

A Taste for Death, P. D. James

The so called “Queen of Crime” strikes a chord for Jennifer and I as this page-turner is set in and about London’s Paddington and Holland Park neighborhoods, locales quite familiar and ear to our own hearts.  Aside from that, it is a very capable example of the genre – full of pretentious aristocrats dragging out a lifestyle which mostly died a century ago, struggling wage-slaves navigating the drear of a stagnant British economy and bureaucracy, everyday murders with creepily daft suspects and perpetrators and nearly everyone searching for someone to hold onto, whether sexually or just emotionally.

At 500 pages in paperback, A Taste for Death allows one to escape to James’ world for a satisfyingly-long time, and generally holds the attention well.  Her Adam Dalgliesh is a comfortable mentor to both subordinates and the reader, his character established long ago in other novels, so the heat is more upon Inspector Kate Miskin and Chief Inspector John Massingham to provide somewhere to hang our sympathies.  This we can do, as Kate has satisfying vulnerabilities and baggage, while Massingham plays the cad and insensitive throwback. 

James follows formula to a degree, but throws in twists and turns.  One – a sudden fainting spell of young Darrell – seems arbitrarily concocted to avoid a brutality which might have been too much, but then another – the novel’s final death – is just the opposite; an even-greater brutality which shocks, reminding us there is a price for hanging about with murder and making clear the author’s desire to give us something more than drawing room theater.

James was 66 by this writing (1986) but shows considerable energy and enterprise in both the volume and originality of the work; sufficient to nudge the boundaries of the murder-mystery genre without any risk to her place in its top tier of practitioners.  I’ll be reading more of here when I need a comfortable escape from the truly-murderous present.

(Intriguing note, the author spent decades working in law enforcement and government positions but is also, officially, ‘Baroness James of Holland Park,’ so whether her characters are embodying or lamenting the existence of their nation’s baggage of nobility and class, it seems she is speaking from experience.)

Deacon King Kong, James McBride

The author of The Good Lord Bird and other works takes us on an expedition into Walter Mosley territory – and a rewarding expedition it is. Set in 1969 Brooklyn under the administration of Mayor John Lindsay, it is also a picture of a neighborhood in transition, from the stickball, ring-a-levio and neighborly numbers-games of its elderly characters’ remembered childhoods, to the heroin-fueled entrepreneurialism of insatiably-greedy young drug-lords and mafia wanna-bes.

As in The Good Lord Bird, McBride revels in dialect and anecdote.  The language is casual and unlearned, full of nicknames, asides, put-downs and epithets that would be verboten in contemporary conversation. The characters too, emphasize what a different world it was back then – the oldsters on whom the action centers being uniformly quirky, folksy and stout of heart.  The young and rising who bedevil them are nearly as uniform in their vulgarity, thoughtlessness and despicability. It is telling too, that the one young man who redeems himself does so though the unlikely route of minor league baseball, a throwback ambition if ever there was one.  (Having grown up not too far away from this place and time, though infinitely far from its hardships, I can recall the reverence with which the ‘national pastime’ was held in those days and parts, and the phantom hope it offered, of escape from all that is unholy).

Race is, of course, a (the?) major theme here, how the ‘coloreds’ moved in after the docks died and the Italians moved on to more fertile ground; how blacks and whites existed in separate virtual civilizations veneered upon the same streets.  How Irish cops had been part of the glue holding it all together, till the stakes grew too high (thank you, drug money) and forced everyone to choose a side and hold it with their life.  How irrelevant most of the white man’s world and morality is to those kept down by them, and how, in this telling, a few resilient souls can even manage to bridge the divides and find a better life on their own terms.  (An aging cop, for example, finds happiness with the daughter of an Italian mobster, whose wife years ago ensured the family’s future by purchasing a Bronx bagel shop with the imprisoned goombah’s cash stash, allowing McBride to opine that you don’t need to be Jewish to make a kosher killing in New York.)

Deacon King Kong’s crime-scene of a plot aims for a sort of urban picaresque, with an old drunk named Sportcoat as through-line, humankind’s earliest art object (the Venus of Willendorf) as its MacGuffin and several oddball romances to give it color and warmth.  Despite frequent descents into over-long conversational riffs, there is enough mystery and eventfulness to carry it along, and the eventual resolution is plenty satisfying so long as one does not look to closely.  Goodness triumphs to a far greater degree than the undercurrents have suggested it should, and the characters for whom one has been taught to root end up – for the most part – intact and even improved in their circumstances.

All in all, a joyful love song for a lost culture (if it is to be believed; I am certainly not one who would know) and for the importance of community over easy assumptions, easy money and taking the easy way out. 

(and no, that did not start out as a reference to Mosely’s Easy Rawlins character, but may as well end there…)

The Feral Detective, Jonathan Lethem

 A contemporary noir, loosely-framed by the protagonist’s despair at the election of the ‘orange monster’ and the economic and cultural divides it reflects, but also deeply embedded in broader 21 st century dislocation and despair.

Intriguingly, Lethem tells the tale thru the voice of Phoebe Siegler, a refugee from the urban entertainment/media complex, rather than Charles Heist (what a surname choice that is!), his idiosyncratic detective. This allows for more thoughtfully-analytic observations by the character, and a more literate tone than would the latter. It also makes for some brave writing, as Lethem voices Phoebe’s sexual longings and encounters with Charles. One would love to know what female readers feel about his level of success, but to me it rang true, if perhaps a bit enhanced by what a man hopes a woman is seeing. Lethem also finds something new in the L A area by choosing for his locations the little-known towns of Upland and Clarement; the resort hermitage of Mt. Baldy (a personal touchstone, having driven, hiked and skied there) and the Mohave Desert just over the mountains from the big city. The tenuous economics of these locales, and the multitudinous opportunity for misfits to isolate themselves resemble the same raw ingredients which Southern writers have long mined from their home turf, but being still part of LA makes for a freshness and perhaps a more accessible connection to readers not of the sub-Mason Dixon world. Interesting and engaging, but I’m not hungry to read another installment, if indeed this is the start of a series (a possibility suggested by the ending, but inconsistent with Lethem’s intellectual adventurousness, nor his career path and to date).

Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan

McEwan still has the power to surprise; to anticipate what his reader will be thinking and make hay of it.

All through this I wondered at the reason behind his writing in Serena’s first person and what sort of personal whimsy or predilection might be behind it. That he (she ) wonders if there might be a hint of gender issues in Tom Haley’s writing (and persona) led me to wonder (not for the first time) just the same about McEwan. Then here she comes in the final epistle to toy again with the theme, but now from Tom’s point of view,and at the same time, reveal the he (McEwan) has, all the time, been writing in Tom’s persona as he (Tom) attempts to write from Serena’s point of view! Almost more fun in the diagram than in the execution, still, McEwan’s Serena is mostly credible ( and where not, one can grant that it is just Tom’s failure, not McEwan’s). Interesting and just kinky enough to add spice.

No masterpiece, but a fun spy story with more human insight and value then any but the best of its genre.