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Archive for the ‘Mystery Fiction’ Category

I’ve noted before that the choice of books made by my book club, admittedly often on very limited information about what to read next, is idiosyncratic, sometimes good, sometimes less so. This one is definitely less so. When I started reading the book, I realised that I’d read at least some of it before, but I hadn’t any memory of what happened. It’s that sort of book.

The story is set partly in seventeenth century Venice, and partly in more or less present day Venice (there don’t seem to be many mobile phones or computers). The plot begins with Corradino Manin, a master glass blower, who has returned to Venice from France, where he revealed the secrets of glass blowing and mirror making to Louis XIV’s court. His defection now means he is a marked man, for glass blowers were forbidden to leave Venice so as to maintain its monopoly in fine glass making. The story of why he left and why he returned runs throughout. Alongside it is the story of his distant descendent Leonora Manin. Distraught at the breakdown of her marriage, she flees from London to Venice, the home of the father she never knew. She already has some skill in glass blowing; now she wants to work as a glass blower in Venice. And she is driven to find out more about her ancestor, Corradino. Most of the story is told from the perspective of these two characters, though there are a few odd cases where we get the perspective of other characters.

The plot conforms to two genres. On one level, it is a romance. Girl meets boy, there are obstacles to their relationship, but there are no prizes for guessing that they overcome these and end up together. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a romance plot – Pride and Prejudice, for example, has one – but the formula needs better handling than it gets here to remain fresh and interesting. On a second level, it is a mystery story, where Leonora undertakes a quest (sort of) to find more about the life of her ancestor, which she needs to do in order to achieve her dream in the present day. There are some potentially interesting parallels between Leonora and Corradino’s motives, but little is made of them. There are some links between the romance and the mystery, but it is hardly what you might call intricate plotting. Some of the story is pretty silly, too.

One aspect of a book that can rescue a fairly predictable formulaic plot is the setting. Fiorato, who is herself part Venetian, has certainly chosen an interesting place and an interesting craft to write about. Who would have known, for example, that the glass blowers of old had worn away the skin on their fingers so they had no fingerprints? The details of the glass-making trade seem to be more or less authentic, both then and now, and Venice is a clearly a magical city. Can the setting carry the book? Unfortunately I don’t think so.

The problem is that the writing is pedestrian. As always, I find it hard to say exactly what it wrong with it, but it just doesn’t ring true. The characters fail to come alive because they are described in unimaginative ways. The journalist Vittoria, for example, has hair that ‘flashed blue-black in the sunlight’, ‘perfect teeth’, ‘glossy red lips’ and ‘sexy confidence’. This is the language of Mills and Boon romances. What characters say is stilted and trite. Even when Fiorato is trying to be dramatic, she succeeds only in producing melodrama. ‘He laughed harder with the last of his breath.’ Really? And most annoying of all is her habit of placing what is supposed to be a character’s self-reflection and insight in indented italics, as in ‘I shouldn’t have said that. How presumptuous and … clumsy. I’m behaving like a schoolgirl.’ There should be no need for such signposting of feelings; they should be expressed as part of the ordinary writing. I found these indented sections increasingly irritating.

So overall, pretty much a disappointment. Fiorato has a history degree from Oxford, so one might have expected better. You can find out more about her – and her three subsequent books – here. And if you think I’m harsh – after all, the book seems to have sold well – have a look at these comments on Goodreads. There’s lots more detail there about what one reviewer thinks is wrong with the book. And I have to agree with him. Not all of the other Goodreads reviewers feel the same way; some find it harmless escapism, or think the setting redeems it somewhat. I’m all for harmless escapism sometimes, but not when it makes me bored and irritated, as this book does.

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Back to a good old fashioned mystery story this week, though the writer, Clare Francis has had anything but a normal preparation for a mystery writing career. (Admittedly, there probably isn’t any ideal preparation for writing mysteries – it’s just that this particular preparation does seem particularly unusual. But I guess her namesake, Dick Francis, was a jockey …) She trained as a ballet dancer and became a household name – at the time – as a long distance single-handed yachtswoman. She wrote several books about her experiences, Come Hell or High Water (1977), an account of a solo voyage across the Atlantic, being my first introduction to her work. Since then she has written four thrillers and eight very readable mystery stories, of which this is the sixth (2001).

Most of Francis’s mystery stories fit the classic mystery pattern where an ordinary person undertakes a search – a quest – for someone or something from their past. A Death Divided is no exception. Joe McGrath is asked by close family friends, the Laskeys, to search for their daughter, Jenna, who hasn’t been heard of for four years. Jenna and Joe had been best friends growing up, and it was Joe who introduced her to his unconventional friend Jamie Chetwood. Joe was devastated when she married Chetwood, and he soon lost touch with them. Now both are nowhere to be found, and quite apart from her parents’ distress at losing her, Jenna’s signature is needed on an important document. What can Joe do to find her? The story moves back and forward in time, as Joe remembers incidents he shared with Jenna, his meeting with Chetwood, and the few times he saw them after their marriage. As in most quests, he experiences both help and hindrance, and his search doesn’t turn out as he had hoped. Seasoned mystery readers will probably pick up the clues that lead to the classic twist which resolves the story, but as a plot it works quite well.

While the story is clearly plot driven, Francis, as always, writes well enough to make the book interesting for its characters and setting. Joe is a lawyer struggling for job satisfaction in a large legal firm. After the death of Joe’s mother, his ageing father has become obsessed with medical negligence cases. Jenna’s parents, Dr Laskey and his wife Helena, who gave Joe most of the love and warmth he experienced after his mother’s death, were originally Polish refugees who still don’t always quite fit into English life. The weather is bleak, Joe’s father’s house is cold and neglected, the unnamed midlands town Joe comes from is shabby and run down, there is little light or colour anywhere.  None of these details matters to the story, but they give it a depth and interest, and a sense of impending hopelessness and gloom which goes well with the action.

My main criticism is that the character of Jenna, which is important to the story, doesn’t seem consistently developed. Except for the times that Joe recalls being with her, she is nearly always off-stage, and what she is thinking and feeling is reported by others. She is a function of the story, rather than a real presence. The same could also be said of Sarah, Joe’s current girlfriend, but I think Francis has been much more successful in her portrayal partly because Sarah is present and revealed through conversation, which is one of Francis’s strengths.

This, like all of Francis’s mystery stories, is definitely unchallenging holiday reading. But that’s what I feel like sometimes. There’s no sex and little physical violence, which can be a refreshing change in crime stories, though of course there is psychological violence. If you compare Francis with the master of psychological thrillers Barbara Vine, she would probably come into second place, but after all, that’s setting the bar quite high. You can read more about Clare Francis and her books here. She hasn’t written a new one since 2008, but it’s worth keeping an eye out for one in the future.

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It was with much sadness that I heard last week of the death of Ruth Rendell. I guess it wasn’t totally unexpected – she was, after all, 85 – but her death leaves a gap in crime writing that will be hard to fill.

Ruth Barbara Rendell (1930-2015) wrote three different kinds of crime fiction. There is her Inspector Wexford series of police procedurals, her stories which involve crime but don’t focus on its detection (Ruth Rendell Mark II), and her psychological crime stories written under the name Barbara Vine

Rendell is reticent about her personal history.  Born in London, she is the only child of an English father and Swedish mother, both school teachers.  Her mother developed multiple sclerosis soon after Ruth’s birth; her father was a gloomy, though loving man.  She grew up, in Essex, with what she describes as ‘a sense of doom’.  After leaving school, she worked from 1948 to 1952 as reporter and sub-editor for the local newspaper, The Chigwell Times.  She married Donald Rendell, a political journalist, in 1950.  They were divorced in 1975, but remarried two years later.  They had one son.  She wrote six books before she approached a publisher; when she did, her books were instantly successful.  From Doon with Death was published in 1964, and was followed by a string of both Wexford and other crime stories.  In 1986, as Barbara Vine, she wrote A Dark-Adapted Eye and from then on continued to produce books in all three categories.  In 1997, she was made a life peer, Baroness Rendell of Barbergh, by the Labour government.  Her interest in the House of Lords is reflected in her (non Wexford) book, The Blood Doctor (2002).

I remember reading From Doon with Death not long after it was published. I thought it was OK as a standard police procedure with some human interest around the Wexford’s and his off-sider Burdon’s families, but not brilliant. The Wikipedia entry on the book, however, says that ‘although the identity of the victim’s lover “Doon” would not be much of a surprise to the 21st century reader, at the time of its release it was considered ground-breaking and daring’. I’ve always thought that Rendell’s writing grew in stature as she developed the character of DCI Reg Wexford. In the early books, Wexford’s role was essentially just to be the detective, and Rendell based him on earlier detectives, such as Maigret.  Later he grew into a much more fully developed character, not only in terms of his family life, but in his temperament, views and interests. ‘I try to make him the sort of man I like,’ she says, ‘– I’ve done that more and more’.

Even more important, though, was the development of his social conscience – the lens through Rendell’s own concerns for social, political and moral issues were reflected. Three books in particular stand out for me: Simisola (1995), Road Rage (1997) and Harm Done (1999). They deal with racism, environmental issues and child abuse.  Rendell has always held left of centre views, and was active for many years in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.  She feared some backlash against Simisola, which deals with racism, as it was new territory for Wexford, but none came. She never preaches; Wexford is too solid and sensible a character to become a mouthpiece for political views. But her concern to show ‘the world as it is’ led her to tackle issues she thought important, and this has enriched her work, and taken it far beyond most police procedurals. It is this grounded, thoughtful appraisal of aspects of British society that will be most missed.

The books that come after these are still good; I’ve reviewed several of them, and they continue up to the time when Wexford has retired – though he can’t keep out of the detecting business. They include The Monster in the Box (2009) here, The Vault (2011) here and sadly the last one, No Man’s Nightingale (2013) here.

For all that I admire the Wexford series, however, my favourite of Rendell’s books remains one of her stand-alone Barbara Vine ones – The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy (1998). One difference between the Vine stories and the Wexford and the other psychological mystery Rendell stories is that the former involve much more reference to events in the past. The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy also differs from the Wexfords in being a mystery story, rather than a crime story. It might even be suggested that it is a novel about family relationships rather than a mystery story; it is a story about deception, rather than crime. Sarah Candless is the daughter of a famous novelist, Gerald Candless. After his death, she sets out to write his biography. But all is not as it seems when she beings looking into her father’s past. Like a lot of other mystery stories, it is a quest, and it builds up a strong sense of mystery, and ultimately, suspense.  It makes for a complex and satisfying story.

You can read the obituary of Ruth Rendell in the Guardian here. In 2014 she created a new detective, Colin Quell, for The Girl Next Door. A must-read for me.

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I recently saw the final episode of Tony Robinson’s World War I, which covers the last year of the war and the Allied victory, and it reminded me how accurate a picture John Buchan gives of the final German offensive in his 1919 book Mr Standfast. The title even echoes the argument of one of the historians on Robinson’s program: that the British fought best with their backs to the wall – ie, standing fast. I’m sure there are other books – Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front comes to mind – which give a much more realistic account of the experience of the war. Buchan’s book is one of his series of ‘shockers’ featuring Richard Hannay; he defines these as ‘the romance [– read adventure -] where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible’. They were designed to divert, not educate. They are books I read when I was young and I have a real soft spot for them – Empire loyalty and all. But my point is that Buchan had an accurate view of what happened, and used it cleverly in his story.

Buchan had good reason to know what was going on at the front. A lawyer by training, he worked as a war correspondent, as director of intelligence in the Ministry of Information with the rank of lieutenant colonel, and later as a director of Reuters news service. Greenmantle, the other of the Hannay books directly concerned with the war (reviewed here) also has some interesting observations about aspects of the conflict. These include the Young Turks movement and the Islamic revival in Turkey in the early years of the war. Hannay, working undercover in Germany, is actually involved with shipping arms to the Turks to fight the Allies at Gallipoli. And the Russian assault on the Turkish city of Erzurum is real – one of the few Tsarist victories of the war. Here, only the end of the story involves the factual trajectory of the war, when the Germans made their last desperate thrust to get around the Allied positions in northern France.

In this book, Hannay is again recalled from active duty and sent to work undercover, this time in a pacifist enclave at Biggleswick in rural England, the premise being that one of the German spies from The Thirty-Nine Steps is living and working there. Buchan is not hostile to the pacifists, though he clearly prefers those who serve; he makes a hero of a conscientious objector who becomes an unarmed messenger at the front. The code Hannay uses is based on The Pilgrim’s Progress; Mr Standfast is a character in that book. In this one, Peter Pienaar, who has joined the RAF, is his counterpart. The American Blenkiron is also in the story, and there is a new character, Mary Lamington, who Hannay falls in love with. Hannay is soon on the trail of the spy’s network, and chasing him through Switzerland and Italy. As with any quest, there are setbacks as well as victories. The reader always knows what will ultimately happen – it’s that sort of book – but Buchan is more than anything else a great story teller, and keeps the reader thoroughly intrigued along the way.

Mr Standfast is nevertheless my least favourite of the four Hannay stories, (not counting the much later Island of Sheep (1936), or the two other books in which he makes a minor appearance). Too much of it isn’t ‘just inside the borders of the possible’; it’s firmly outside. There’s too much coincidence. The villain gets to gloat over Hannay and of course tell him of his nefarious plans – a plot device I never like. Buchan is notoriously bad at female characters; Mary is far too good to be true. The section dealing with the war comes at the end, and isn’t fully integrated into the rest of the story; it fulfils a purpose more related to what happens in The Pilgrim’s Progress than what happens in the spy story. You have to suspend disbelief, but if you can do so, despite my reservations it’s a good read.

While I found the section on the war at the end to be a clever use of imaginary events that could have happened , Buchan perhaps didn’t take the war story far enough. What he emphasises is the importance of aircraft reconnaissance to the battle to stop the Germans breaking through at Amiens. He doesn’t present it as the turning point it was in the nature of the war, from the horrific slaughter of the static trench stalemate that had prevailed for so long, to a much more fluid and coordinated push by air and ground forces supported by the relatively new weapon, the tank (first used September 1916). I was pleased to see Tony Robinson giving credit to the Australian General, John Monash, for the so called ’Dark Day of the War’ for Germany, the battle which the incident Buchan describes is part of. A civil engineer, not a career soldier, Monash saw the potential of tanks and planes more readily than some of his professional army colleagues. If only this had happened earlier in the war … I might need to read Roland Perry’s biography of him – Monash: The Outsider Who Won A War (2007).

There’s a lot about John Buchan on the internet; you can read a brief outline of his life and work here. Aside from being Governor General of Canada, Buchan is probably best remembered for his shockers, though he would have preferred to be remembered as an historian. You could look out for his own History of the Great War (1922).

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I liked Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl (2012) so much that I included it in my ‘best of’ 2013 list. You can read my review here. So naturally I had to see the movie. One of things I particularly like about the book is the clever way misdirection is used to create suspense, and I was interested to see how this would be translated on film. I think it worked pretty well – though some other things I thought were strengths of the book were missing from the movie.

The film follows the story of the book pretty faithfully, with only slight abbreviations – not surprising, since Gillian Flynn wrote the screen play. On the day of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick arrives home to find his wife Amy has disappeared. It looks like there has been some kind of struggle. Has she been kidnapped? Or, is it, as the police conclude as the evidence piles up against him, that Nick has killed her, and tried to make it look like a kidnapping? In the book, both Nick and Amy admit to being unreliable narrators; this is less clear in the movie. Amy’s diary comes into the book much sooner than it does in the film, removing one source of misdirection, but I think viewers who haven’t read the book will still get the same reaction to the major misdirection that drives the plot that you get reading the book. I knew what was coming and I still enjoyed it. There isn’t much physical violence in the book, but what there is, is presented very graphically in the film; a bit of a look-away-now moment for me. But overall, a clever film, well acted, darkly funny in parts, and exciting in others.

One of the friends I saw the movie with, who hadn’t read the book, felt that the ending was not really credible. She wondered whether the actor who played Nick, Ben Affleck, was too pleasant and sympathetic – even given his behaviour in the story. In the book, the reader learns a lot more about his talent for misdirection, and his psychology, his inner thoughts and the influence of his father, all of which present him as flawed and accentuate his sense of being ‘hollow’, even while they explain it. I also wondered if she might have found the ending a little unsatisfactory if it was assumed that the story could be taken as a realistic portrayal of a marriage – after all, the blurb for the film says it ‘unearths the secrets at the heart of a modern marriage’. I thought the story of Nick and Amy in the book was satire, not an accurate representation. On those grounds, the ending of the book is quite appropriate. But the film wasn’t played as satire, (at least I don’t think so, and maybe I’m wrong about the book anyway), so the alternative of a resolution that is supposed to be realistic and takes ‘modern marriage’ at its face value perhaps didn’t work perfectly.

The other major difference I found between the book and the movie was in the setting. In both the book and the film, Nick and Amy have lost their jobs in New York because of the Global Financial Crisis, and moved to Nick’s decaying home town in Missouri. In the movie, they live in a big, well-appointed house in a pleasant-looking neighbourhood and Nick drives an expensive-looking SUV. It’s true that the shopping mall in the town is shown as derelict, as it is in the book, but I thought the film completely lacked the sense of economic decline that characterised the town in the book – ‘suburbia, post-comet, post-zombie, post-humanity’ and its surroundings – ‘a series of shuttered businesses – ruined community banks and defunct movie houses’. This is a pity, because for me, Nick and Amy’s relationship can also be described as ‘post-humanity’ – rather than a ‘normal’ breakdown of modern marriage. The movie is about what individual husbands and wives can do to each other; the book puts this behaviour into a much more problematic social and economic context. Yes, I said above that the author wrote the screen play …

Even given these reservations, I still enjoyed the movie. There will always be a debate about whether a book is better than the movie made of it, or whether reading the book spoils the movie. In most cases I find I like the book best, though there are notable exceptions to this rule (see Lord of the Rings, where I loved both, and thought the film even added something, and the Harry Potter movies which improved on the books by removing some things). You can read a discussion of this film v this book here. And you can see a trailer for the film here.

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After reading Evie Wyld’s traumatic but powerful All the Birds Singing – see my previous post – I was looking for something a bit more relaxed. But having found it, am I sure I really prefer comfortable?

Goddard is a well-established writer of mystery stories, where an ordinary person finds himself (and yes, all his heroes are male, as far as I can remember) having to uncover some dark secret.  Most of his twenty or so books deal with the impact such secrets from the past have on the present – see for example my review of the book before this one, Fault Line (2012). This one (2013), however, is set fully in the past. And a sequel to it – The Corners of the Globe (2014) – has already been published, going on from where The Ways of the World leaves off.

It is 1919. James Maxted, recently a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, wants to start a flying school. But his plans are interrupted by the death of his father, Sir Henry Maxted. Sir Henry was a retired diplomat recalled to service at the Paris Peace Conference. According to the French police, he died in an accident. James goes to Paris to bring his father’s body home, but soon finds there are enough ‘oddities and inconsistencies’ to throw doubt on the official version of events. He feels he has to investigate further. And one thing leads to another. What is the meaning of a mysterious list Sir Henry has left with a beautiful young widow? Why does the British Secret Service have an interest? Who else in the diplomatic community may hold a clue to Sir Henry’s death? You get the picture.

One of the things that interests me about ordinary person mysteries is the motivation of the main character to undertake the always dangerous task of uncovering the truth. Is it credible? Here, Maxted wants to find out why his father died; he feels driven by a sense of family loyalty. I don’t find this totally convincing in the sense that Maxted is rather braver than the average ordinary person. Goddard accounts for this in terms of his war experience: flying small planes over a battle field was not for the faint-hearted. He has been ‘forged by the fire, not consumed.’ When someone suggests he should be afraid, his response is: ‘I seem to have lost the knack’. But I think I’d be more convinced if Maxted wasn’t a bit of a cardboard cut-out – steadfast, loyal and resolute – in striking contrast to his stuffy older brother who just wants to avoid scandal. This is Boys Own stuff. Goddard actually describes Maxted’s actions at one point without apparent irony as ‘derring-do’, a phrase I thought was only ever used facetiously. Goddard hasn’t drawn any of the characters with any depth, which is disappointing. They are there just to make the story work.

And does it? Narrative is one of Goddard’s mains strengths, and he has crafted a clever enough plot. It moves along quickly, the short chapters adding to the pace. As with other amateurs, Maxted’s main way of operating is to ‘keep pushing’ and to see ‘who’s pushing back’. There is treachery and betrayal – common Goddard themes – and Maxted isn’t always right in his assumptions. There is a degree of happenstance and luck. But Goddard has also used the idea that ‘the things we think are unimportant are often the things that catch us out.’ In one case, what would otherwise be a gaping hole in the plot is covered by the explanation being deferred till next time. There are also some very loose ends, presumably deliberately left so that they can be taken up again in the next book. Indeed it may well be that some of what looks a bit like padding – Maxted’s expertise in flying, for example, or his period as a prisoner of war in Germany after his plane was shot down – will become relevant in the next book, to which this one is clearly a prelude.

It may also be that the relevance of the Peace Conference comes into sharper focus in the next book. It’s clearly an interesting time, and not one I’ve read about elsewhere. But apart from being an occasion bringing together a number of diplomats, and a matter for concern about the security of the various delegations, the Conference, and what it is trying to achieve, doesn’t play much of a part. Nor has Goddard put much work into the social setting of post-World War I England and France. Maxted’s off-sider, Sam Twentyman, his sergeant and former mechanic, finds it hard not to call his former officer ‘sir’; class is still alive and well, but is glossed over. Paris is cold and bleak, and there are demobilised soldiers begging on the streets, but there is no real sense of post war trauma.

This is perhaps disappointing, because as I noted in the earlier post on Goddard, he set out with higher standards than he seems to be achieving here. He says ‘I was inspired to take up writing by a growing dissatisfaction with much contemporary literature in which I detect a growing rift between technique and meaning. By wedding richness of language and intricacy of plot to narrative drive and dense imagery, I seek to heal that rift’. Well, there’s intricacy of plot and narrative drive, but the richness of language – and of characterisation – seem to have got lost along the way. Some of his earlier novels were better. It seems I need a book that is a bit more of a challenge for real satisfaction.

You can find more about Robert Goddard – and the next book – here.

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A while back I reviewed Gillian Flynn’s third novel, Gone Girl (2012). I liked it so much that I included it in my five favourite books of 2013, and decided I should read Flynn’s earlier work. Dark Places is her second book, published in 2009 – though my edition says on the cover ‘from the author of Gone Girl’, suggesting that the third book is carrying the less successful second one. I think this suggestion is pretty right, though it may be a matter of taste rather than quality. Certainly it’s a very different book from the one that followed it.

Libby Day is the sole survivor of a massacre at her mother’s debt-ridden Kansas farm, twenty four years ago when she was seven. She lost her mother and two older sisters. Her older brother, fifteen year old Ben, was convicted of the murders and jailed for life; it was Libby’s evidence against him that ensured his conviction. It soon becomes clear that the family was in a bad way before the murders; Libby now lives in a state of aimless depression. She has used up the fund that was created for her from donations by well-wishers, she has no job, no skills and no motivation to acquire any. Then she receives a letter from the ’Kill Club’, a macabre organisation made up of people with obsessions about particular crimes. They believe Ben to be innocent. They will pay her to talk to them, to sell family mementos to them, and above all to find out if someone else could have committed the crimes. Libby wants the money and knows that her carefully coached testimony as a child wasn’t true, but what sort of can of worms will she open if she has to go back to that time – a ‘Darkplace’ she tries never to think about? What if Ben really is innocent? Who else might have done it?

Half of the book tells the story, with Libby as narrator, of her search for the truth, which gradually becomes as important to her as the money. Alternate chapters tell what happened on the day leading up to the murders from the perspective of Patty, Libby’s mother, and of Ben, though in the third person; a series of events is recounted that spiral into worse and worse disaster. As in Gone Girl, there are multiple voices; each has its distinctive tone. Flynn has a very good ear for nuances of region, age and gender. This is a very clever narrative structure, as Libby’s story expands the possibility of arriving at the truth and even changing her life, while Patty’s and Ben’s stories can only close in, edging closer and closer to catastrophe we know is about to happen. And of course, ‘every single person in this case lies, is lying, did lie.’

Libby is certainly no heroine struggling for freedom from her messed up life. Right from the beginning she presents herself as seriously damaged. The book begins with the sentence: ‘I have a meanness inside me. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It’s the Day blood. Something is wrong with it.’ This is a theme she returns to again and again. Is it an explanation? Or an excuse? Her mother feels constantly inadequate; she has done the best she can, but the farm is mortgaged to the hilt, there’s never enough money, her ex-husband, Runner Day, is worse than useless: ‘wily and dumb at the same time’, dealing drugs, always on the scrounge. Her sisters are mean and whiney, and her brother Ben is an angry and hostile teenager. But Patty loves her kids, and would defend then if she could; can Libby be blamed for only occasionally glimpsing this? Can she actually change for the better?  The only reason you don’t thoroughly dislike her is that she is very self-aware; she knows when she’s being hateful. And some of her terrible habits turn out to be useful.

What happens during the final day before the murders, and the murders themselves, is actually very nasty, so nasty that I skipped over a couple of bits. I think Flynn describes Ben’s situation very well; you can see how it could happen, even if it is a bit over the top. A fear of the devil worship he is accused of did actually sweep the United States in the 1980s, crazy as it sounds. Communities  – especially poor rural ones? – can get caught up in mindless hysteria. Teenager boys do struggle to understand how to be men; we might blame Ben for some of his decisions, but Flynn makes them understandable. I’m not so sure about Patty, though.

I took some of the social relations in Gone Girl to be satirical, though I thought the tacky mid-west landscape the story was set in was realistic enough. There doesn’t seem to me to be any satire in this book. The social relations are a real reflection of deadening poverty, greed and selfishness – with only a tiny bit of love. And the physical landscape – the run-down farm, the failed tourist town, the toxic dump and the plastic bags blowing out of the landfill – also ring true. Libby’s self-deprecation may lighten the blighted tone somewhat, but is just that; it has no wider social reference. Overall I couldn’t help thinking that Gone Girl is nasty in a clever way, whereas Dark Places is nasty in a cruel and twisted way. They’ve made a film based on the book, but I certainly won’t be going to see it.

You can read more about Gillian Flynn here, and the film here. It is to be released in September of this year.

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This is an oldie but a goodie. Published in 1924, it is the fourth of the Richard Hannay stories – or ‘shockers’ as he called them, though there is nothing we would find shocking about them. What he probably meant was that they were intended to be light and popular – a ‘romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible’. It was perhaps his self-deprecating way of excusing a shocking lapse of taste by a writer who thought his best works were his histories and biographies.

Richard Hannay – now Sir Richard – is comfortably established on his country estate with his wife – Mary, from the previous Hannay book, Mr Standfast (1919) – and young son. His old boss in the Foreign Office warns him that he is about to be asked to undertake ‘a troublesome piece of business’, and sure enough, he is approached by Julius Victor, who wants Hannay’s help in finding his daughter who has been kidnapped. Hannay refuses. His old friend Macgillivrary from Scotland Yard also solicits his help, explaining  that there have been three kidnappings and that they  are part of a much larger conspiracy, the only clues to which lie in some lines of apparent doggerel. Hannay is still unmoved.  But guess what? He finally agrees to help.

Buchan describes the story as ‘a pure contest of wits’. This isn’t quite true, because the first steps towards solving the puzzle of the apparent doggerel rely on the subconscious, a concept that had become quite fashionable by the nineteen twenties. Buchan is also interested in ‘the amount of stark craziness that the War has left in the world … a dislocation of the mechanism of human reasoning ’. This arises in the context of a discussion of detective fiction, which I’ve always found fascinating in light of this story. Hannay’s friend Dr Greenslade explains that normally, detective fiction writers fix on the solution first, and then invent a problem to suit it. They think of several apparently unconnected facts or events, and devise a connection. ‘The author writes the story inductively, and the reader follows it deductively.’ But Greenslade says that the old forms of detective writing are no longer convincing because the ‘argus-eyed, lightning-brained expert’ can’t take account of the ‘pukka madness’ that now results in crime. So how far is Buchan following the old prescription of inventing the connection between apparently disparate events, and how far is his hero coming to terms with madness and moral dislocation? Is he perhaps writing a new kind of mystery fiction from which a line may be traced to the current crop of psychological crime and serial killer thrillers?

I have previously written disparagingly of Dornford Yates’s 1920s upper-class-twits-of-the-year style heroes, and I have to admit that Buchan and his hero Hannay are both an unquestioning part of the British upper middle class. This may grate on some readers, as may various other of his prejudices. For example, Julius Victor is described as ‘the whitest Jew since the Apostle Paul’. Moral degeneracy is ascribed to ‘the classes that shirked the war – you see it in Ireland’. Among the ‘moral imbeciles’, are found ‘young Bolshevik Jews, the younger entry of the wilder communist sects, and … the sullen murderous hobbledehoys in Ireland.’ It doesn’t make it any better that these racial and political stereotypes are the tools of the real villains, whose only ends are wealth and power. On the other hand ‘cruel, humourless, hard, utterly wanting in sense of proportion’ doesn’t seem a bad description of Hitler and his leading Nazis, or Stalin and his acolytes, so maybe Buchan’s ideas about moral dislocation weren’t just a reflection of his prejudices.

The story is undoubtedly melodramatic. Hannay’s helpers in solving the mystery – his wife Mary and his old friend Sandy Arbuthnot – are both too good to be true, to say nothing of too clever. So is it worth reading this old stuff? I still enjoy the way the plot is worked through. Maybe my pleasure in the book is just nostalgia, since for all Buchan’s attempts to introduce psychology into the story, it really is still just a classic adventure story like all the Hannay books. But in my view, no less worth reading for that, particularly if you are interested in the history and development of the thriller.

While Buchan’s books The Thirty Nine Steps and to a lesser extent Greenmantle are much better known, The Three Hostages is readily available on Amazon, and Project Gutenberg. You can read about Buchan here, including his time as Governor General of Canada, and there is a John Buchan Society, found here. And here is another blogger who more or less agrees with me about the book.

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When it got so hot in Adelaide recently, the only thing to do was to sit quietly and read a book. So I chose to re-read a former favourite, Gaudy Night (1936), and to see how it has stood the test of time.

Dorothy Sayers is one of the classic writers of Golden Age crime fiction, which was dominated by the sort of clever puzzle mysteries she is so good at. In the early books, her detective hero Lord Peter Wimsey reads like a bit of a parody of the upper class Englishman, complete with monocle and a repertoire of silly slang.  But in the later books, particularly those which also feature Harriet Vane, herself a writer of detective stories, he shows that under his flippant nonchalance he has uncertainties and sensitivities.  Indeed the Vane/Wimsey stories could also be thought of as love stories with a bit of detection thrown in. Gaudy Night is the third of the four Vane/Wimsey stories. If you are new to them, it’s worth starting with the first one, Strong Poison (1930) because it sets up the relationship between Vane and Wimsey – with all its problems.

In Gaudy Night, Harriet goes to the student reunion – traditionally known as a Gaudy Night – of her Oxford College, Shrewsbury (imaginary, but based on Sayers’s own women’s college, Somerville). There she is exposed to some unpleasant anonymous messages. She is distressed because one of the messages might apply to her own circumstances. But she thinks no more of it until sometime later when the Dean of the College asks her to come and investigate a spate of such messages, and other malicious damage which has occurred around the college. Harriet unwillingly agrees. The perpetrator becomes bolder, and the incidents more dangerous. It is clear that whoever is doing this must come from within the College. Could she be a student? A member of the domestic staff? Surely she couldn’t be one of the members of the Senior Common Room? And how difficult will it be for Harriet to translate her writing about mysterious crimes into solving one?

A second strand in the story is her relationship with Wimsey. He fell in love with her in Strong Poison, and saved her life when she was charged with murder. Harriet feels beholden to him, ‘the creature of his making and the mirror of his own magnanimity’; needing to be grateful to him ‘is simply damnable’. ‘The fact is,’ she thinks, ‘I have got a bad inferiority complex … I could have liked him so much if I could have met him on an equal footing …’ So here we have the classic elements of romance: a relationship that can only progress to mutual love once certain problems are overcome. It didn’t happen in the previous book (Have His Carcass, 1932); will it happen in this one? And where might Wimsey fit into Harriet’s efforts at detection?

But what really sets this book apart is what has been described as Sayers’s ‘love affair with Oxford’. Most of the action is set there, and the buildings, the landscape, the social customs and ambiance of 1930s Oxford life are affectionately conveyed – she clearly loves the place. Even more important is her depiction of the academic life that is lived there by the female dons; its values are central to the story.

How does this stand up to a modern reading? I have a somewhat mixed reaction. The puzzle Vane and Wimsey have to solve is cleverly established, especially as the clues to the solution, which are only easy to see in retrospect, are really as much about states of mind as about the physical evidence. While the denouement is quite powerful, this is not an action packed thriller, and it may move too slowly – and with a bit too much Oxford – for some readers. I am sentimental enough to enjoy the love story. Sayers writes well, and Vane and Wimsey are both well drawn and interesting characters. She writes intelligently about academic life, though her conclusions would now probably be considered simplistic. Sayers is clearly a feminist – though of course she does not use that word – and is passionate in her defence of the need for equality in education, and about the difficulty of the choice that had to be made then between marriage and paid work.

However there remains the question of whether her loving description of the life of a tiny elite – with an aristocratic detective to boot – can still evoke sympathy and interest. The characters are not unaware of the issues of class and privilege, but that doesn’t alter the reality of it in the story. Some of the female dons protest against any automatic assumption that the outrages are being committed by one of the servants. But servants they remain. Wimsey is aware that the aristocracy is becoming a back number: ‘Our kind of show is dead and done for,’ he says. ‘What the hell good does it do anybody these days?’ But he’s still rich and privileged. This could reasonably be seen as Sayers telling it like it is; readers of today may or may not find it interesting. Re-reading it, I found her veneration of Oxford and all its traditions a little difficult to appreciate unreservedly, even as an escape from the heat. But don’t let me put you off. Like I said, the love story is nice.

You can read more about Dorothy Sayers here. She says that ‘The novelist’s only native country is Cloud-Cuckooland’ but I don’t believe her. Harriet Vane shares too many of her experiences with Dorothy Sayers for it all to be make believe.

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Published in 2010, this is Elizabeth Speller’s first novel. I came across her work when I read a review of her second book, The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton (2012), which features the same main character, so I thought I should read the first one first. I’m not sure that was a good idea. On one hand, it certainly establishes the background and circumstances of the main character. On the other, it reads a bit like a first novel – promising, but flawed.

It is 1921. Captain Laurence Bartram has survived the cataclysm of the World War, but is now drifting and purposeless. His wife died in childbirth during the war, and his baby son soon after; now his life before 1914 is ‘a closed world he could never reach back and touch.’ He has been commissioned to write a book about London churches, but is making slow progress. Then he receives a letter from Mary Emmett, the sister of his school friend, John Emmett. He too survived service in the war, but has recently committed suicide. Mary wants Laurence to help her understand why. Though Laurence feels he is unlikely to be much help, he remembers liking Mary, and agrees to try. But what if the truth will be of no comfort to her?

This story has the form of a classic mystery, where an ordinary person undertakes some sort of quest to uncover a secret. Laurence makes a good ‘ordinary person’: he is a kind and decent man, troubled by his own memories of what he has lived through. One thing he finds out leads him to another, until the whole picture – or almost the whole picture – becomes clear. Along the way he gets help, mainly in the form of information. Quite a lot of this comes from another school friend, Charles, who has a wide range of friends and relations who together seem to know almost the entire surviving officer class from the war. I’m sure Speller is right in saying that at least in the early years of the war, getting a commission was a class thing; a question of going to the right school and having the right background. Many of them would be likely to have friends and relations in common.  Nevertheless, my problem with Charles is his role in the structure of the plot; his body of knowledge is just too convenient. There are also some fairly wild coincidences: sentences like ‘Even as he absorbed the extraordinary coincidence unfolding in front of him’ don’t really make up for the hole in the plot that necessitates them. The reader will certainly work out what is happening quicker than Laurence does. And the resolution takes a form that I think is a bit amateur.  Overall, there is too much telling and not enough showing. But this is a fault of a first time novelist, and there are other things to like about the book.

Speller has been praised for her scrupulous presentation of the early 1920s, and in general the context she provides is interesting, and sometimes thought-provoking. (There is one anachronism though – see if you can pick it.) However I found Laurence’s middle class perspective a bit limiting at times, as for example when he assumes the person he is looking for must have been an officer: it takes him several chapters to figure out that he could have been an ordinary soldier. He then at least does reflect on the class-bound basis of the army. But Charles especially reminds me of characters in the snobbish stories of the 1920s mystery writer Dornford Yates – that is, he has no character outside what is almost a parody of the English gentleman.

The book’s main strength, for me, is the issue of military discipline that is at the heart of the story. Speller has researched the area closely – she gives some references in an afterword – and it is well to be reminded what powers the British Army wielded over soldiers at that time, particularly as the centenary of the beginning of World War I approaches, with all its opportunities to romanticise the terrible sacrifice. Laurence is able to regain his emotional life by admitting to himself that during his service, he was terrified much of the time by the thought of dying. ‘We weren’t supposed to be frightened, not so that it showed,’ says one character. ‘Now when you look back, you can see that fear was the rational response to much of it’. And Speller suggests that what soldiers had to endure was essentially unendurable. This is hardly new, but highlighting the psychological as well as the physical damage caused by the war gives depth to her story.

Overall, at the better end of holiday reading. You can find out more about Elizabeth Speller here. She has just published a third book, though not featuring Laurence Bartram – there’s only so many adventures the ‘ordinary man’ can have before he makes a profession of it. The new one deals directly with the Great War. It seems like there might be a bit of an industry this year round the centenary of its outbreak. And certainly lots of controversy.

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‘Morse, Rebus … and now Yussef’ reads the blurb on the front of this book – a quote from one of the London weeklies. When will I stop being taken in by what’s on the cover? The Saladin Murders (2008) is not remotely like the books of Colin Dexter or Ian Rankin, and Yussef is nothing like Morse or Rebus. He’s not even a detective! The Saladin Murders is the second of what has now become the Palestine Quartet. They are mystery stories featuring Omar Yussef, a Palestinian school teacher from Bethlehem in the West Bank who finds himself quite unintentionally caught up in conflict and murder – on four different occasions.

Of course being caught up unintentionally in conflict and murder four different times is probably a good deal easier in Palestine than in, say, Adelaide. Indeed it is the setting of the story in Palestine that attracted me to it. I was hoping for something a bit edgy and fashionably noir, but I didn’t get it. What I did get was a sometimes frustrating, rather low key story that nevertheless has its satisfactions.

Omar Yussef, principal of a UN school for refugees in Bethlehem, has come to Gaza to inspect UN schools there. But before he can begin, he finds that another of the UN teachers, who also works at the University in Gaza, has been arrested. He immediately sets out with two UN colleagues – a Scot and a Swede – to find out what is going on. He is soon entangled in a web of violence and corruption. ‘In Gaza, nothing is what it seems,’ he is told. ‘There is no single isolated crime in Gaza. Each one is linked to many others.’ And so it proves.

Matt Rees is a former journalist who worked in the Middle East, including six years as Time magazine’s Jerusalem bureau chief, and he has written non-fiction accounts of the struggle between Israel and Palestine. So we can assume that he is pretty familiar with Gaza. His view of it on one level is completely negative; the internal organisation seems to be equally or more oppressive than the Israeli presence. He sees the PLO government as a vicious, corrupt, factionalised body made up of ruthless and self-seeking men. They seem indifferent to the suffering of the ordinary Palestinians. ‘To live here,’ thinks Yussef, ‘you would have to accept the shadows, swelter in airless rooms, choke on your resentment.’ The action takes place over several days when Gaza is enveloped in a dust storm, making it an even more unpleasant place to live. A putrid puddle in front of the toilets is ‘the scent of Gaza’. I felt at some points that Rees was overly harsh in his judgement. Yet he has said that Gaza ‘is the most beautiful spot imaginable’, and that he wanted to show the good as well as the bad in Palestinian society.

The good is definitely represented by Yussef. He rejects ‘blind faith in tradition’ and opposes injustice and cruelty. He is dogged in his pursuit of what he thinks is right. He is a kind and polite man, who values his family and the simple pleasures of food and companionship. He knows his limitations. ‘How could a history teacher in his mid-fifties, slowed by the effects on his body of youthful dissipation, hope to encounter such a dirty world and retain his decency, even his life?’ He doesn’t really detect or solve, and is assisted – kept alive, in fact – throughout by his friend the police chief from Bethlehem Khamis Zwydan, and his off-sider, Sami. Yussef is mostly an observer of events, not a driver of them. The final resolution is his work, though.

So what’s my problem? First, I find it all too black and white. It’s true that the police chief is a PLO member, who stands somewhat in the middle. He’s the one that says what Rees may well believe: that the PLO ‘should’ve stayed underground for ever. We can’t govern.’ But the other senior PLO men are over-the-top evil, and their followers are mainly driven by hatred and greed. Whatever you think of the real PLO, this makes for a simplistic ‘goodies versus baddies’ story.  And though the writing is often good, it is also sometimes naïve and unconvincing. Take for example the following: ‘Khamis Zwydan’s eyes were hard with recognition of the hatred that overwhelmed Omar Yussef. He dragged his friend forcefully, but with tenderness and understanding, away from the wreckage.’ It just doesn’t ring true to me.

On a purely personal note, I was interested to see that one of the crucial plot elements in the book is similar to one that is central to the plot of my daughter’s thriller Conspire. Great minds, and all that.

You can read more about Matt Rees, Palestine and the Palestine Quartet on his very interesting web-site here. He has also written two historical thrillers, one about Mozart, and one about Caravaggio. Please note that the UK and US editions the books of Palestine Quartet have different titles.

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This time of the year everyone seems to be writing about ‘the best of 2013’, so I thought I’d join in. Here are my five favourite books from this year. They weren’t necessarily published in 2013; I just read them this year. The top three were easy, but numbers four and five were difficult choices and I could easily have made different ones. Why do I think they are ‘the best’? Putting them together like this makes me realise that in each case it is the writing style that appeals to me. What the author is saying is also important; each of these books seems to me to have an important message. But the message becomes most appealing when it is delivered beautifully, as is the case in all of these. I’ve linked to my original reviews for more information about them.

5. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl (2012) is a very clever mystery story about the disappearance of a young woman from her home in North Carthage, Missouri. Has she been kidnapped? Or murdered? What is her husband Nick’s role in this? Can either of them be trusted as narrators? The ingenious plot is set against the background of post GFC America; Nick and Amy’s moral landscape is as bleak as the physical setting. The combination of social commentary and plot twists is brilliantly done.

4. Home, by Marilynne Robinson

This couldn’t be more different from number 5. Set in 1956, Home (2008) is a companion to Robinson’s Gilead (2004), but I couldn’t exclude it for that reason, though I think it’s better to read Gilead first, as both books cover some of the same ground. Jack Boughton is the disreputable son of the Presbyterian minister of the small town of Gilead. The Reverend Broughton is old and ill. He loves Jack, but despairs of his wild ways. Why has Jack chosen to come home now, after so many years away?  This is a book where the story is simple. It is the relationships that matter – but also the reflections on American history and society that Robinson quietly alludes to. I know of no other writer who can make silences mean so much.

3. Bring Up The Bodies, by Hilary Mantel

It’s true I didn’t warm to this book as easily as I did to Wolf Hall (2009), the first in the trilogy. I think this was because I found the striving Cromwell of the first book more attractive than the successful courtier of this one. But I still very much enjoyed it, and nobody can deny how well Mantel writes. I like her use of the present tense and her sharp, modern dialogue. It’s true that we all know more or less what is going to happen, but Cromwell doesn’t, which adds hugely to the tension. Mantel doesn’t pretend she is writing history; it’s how Cromwell might have seen it – an imaginative recreation. Maybe it’s best to read Wolf Hall first, though.

2. The Heart Broke In, by James Meek

This is a wonderfully complex story that Meek nevertheless manages to hold together in a very satisfying way. Set mostly in present day England, with brief excursions to Africa, it is part social commentary, part exploration of morality, part thoughts on science, part love story and part family saga. And that description only scratches the surface. There is a rich cast of characters. And then there is the writing. Meek has a great ear for the vernacular, a wry vocabulary to describe modern life, and the capacity to write movingly about love, betrayal and death. A great combination.

1. Flight Behaviour, by Barbara Kingsolver

And the winner is Flight Behaviour (2012). Maybe I’m biased in my choice, because Flight Behaviour is about the effects of climate change, an issue in which I am passionately interested. The migration of Monarch butterflies has been disrupted by the destruction of their winter habitat, and they have settled instead in a valley in the Appalachians. But they are constantly as risk from the weather. Kingsolver doesn’t lecture about the effects of climate change; she shows them. But even if readers only have a mild interest in this subject, I think they’d have to agree that it’s a beautifully written book. The story is complex and satisfying. Kingsolver shows a rare humanity in presenting her characters as fully rounded and truly human. Some of this comes from her ability to write convincing dialogue. But her descriptions of people, family, nature, and life in general in rural Bible belt America are superb.

Only one of these books – Bring Up The Bodies – won any of the big literary prizes, so critical opinion isn’t on my side. But I don’t care. These are the books that moved me most this year, and I hope that other readers will enjoy – or have already enjoyed – them too. Happy reading.

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I recently reviewed the latest Charles Cumming spy story: A Foreign Country (2012). Cumming has been highly praised for his work, but while I enjoyed the book, I didn’t think the writer warranted the comparisons he was getting with legends of the genre like John le Carré. But I thought I’d give him another try; this one was published in 2011. The result? My opinion remains the same. He’s good, but not that good.

If I was being very picky – which of course I never am – I’d say this was not really a spy story at all. Rather, it is a mystery story, where an innocent individual finds himself (in this case) inadvertently involved in some sort of conspiracy. It just so happens that the events that make up this conspiracy take place in the secret world of espionage, with the familiar themes of double dealing and betrayal.

Dr Sam Gaddis is a lecturer in Russian History at University College London. At the launch of his book, The Tsars, comparing Peter the Great with ‘the current Russian president Sergei Platov’ (clearly Vladimir Putin) he meets a young woman, Holly Levette, who claims that her recently dead mother has left an archive of material about the KGB. She has been referred to him by a journalist friend of Sam’s, Charlotte Berg, who is also working on a story involving spying. She has been contacted by someone who claims to have explosive revelations about a sixth British spy associated with those recruited by the pre-world war II Soviet espionage agency, the NKVD, during the young men’s years at Cambridge – the Trinity Five (Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt and Cairncross). Charlotte asks Sam to collaborate on a book about it. Her sudden death from a heart attack and his urgent need for money – a tax bill and school fees for his daughter who lives in Spain with Sam’s ex-wife – convince him to go it alone. But what on earth had she discovered? And is there anything new in Holly’s archive?

As you might expect, Sam’s path is not smooth, and he soon has various enemies – though as in most ‘quest’ stories, he finds help as well as hindrance along the way. The story is told largely through his eyes, but other characters also carry the plot at various times, so the reader sometimes knows more than he does, for example when he discards hypotheses the reader knows to be true. This helps with the pace and tension, though it is a slow- building plot, rather than the ‘bang bang kiss kiss’ sort. I am always interested in how a plot about a civilian with lots of powerful enemies can be resolved; it’s not like he can arrest someone. This one finds a quite satisfying mechanism, though I am left with the feeling that the plot, though complex, isn’t really subtle. It comes together, but you can see the magician behind the screen pulling the strings. This may be unfair; I know I’m comparing the way the crucial elements of the plot resolve with ‘the last clever knot’ that Smiley has to unpick in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – and I had to read that twice before I understood it. And of course it all looks simple once you know. The twists and turns are enjoyable, and that’s probably all that matters.

Cumming writes well about people. He is good at quick character sketches, and makes the cast of minor characters come alive. He presents Sam Gaddis as an essentially a good man who believes in ‘human decency’, caught up in events well outside his control – though he manages to deal with it all reasonably well. He has some of the talents needed for his quest; he protests that he is ‘an archives man’, not an investigative journalist, but he is good at following a trail from one piece of evidence to the next. (In a nice touch, his enemies manage to use his ‘archive’ work to trick him temporarily.) He also falls to bits quite convincingly at times, making him more human than some other fictional academic sleuths – Robert Langdon comes to mind. I am less convinced, however, by Holly Levette, and the other woman in the book, Tanya Acocella. At one point Gaddis compiles a list of reasons why Holly, now his girlfriend, might be a ‘plant’, and it’s all too believable. Her reasons for being with him aren’t ever explored. Nor, in my opinion, is Tanya’s motivation adequately explained. This is a pity, because it’s her role that makes the plot a bit mechanistic; she does what is needed by the story, not what comes from being a character that Cumming has fully developed. But hey, it’s a well written thriller with a clever plot. Be grateful for having found a good one. And I do like the end.

You can read more about Charles Cumming here. His next book, A Colder War, is as promised a sequel to A Foreign Country, and will be published in 2014.

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I picked up this book (2009) simply because I saw the name Josephine Tey on the cover. She has long been one of my favourite crime writers of the Golden Age. Two of her books in particular stay with me; The Franchise Affair is one of the best pieces of fictional detection I know of, and The Daughter of Time showed me for the first time how the historical record  – in this case the guilt or otherwise of Richard III – can be manipulated by the victors. And here she is, a character in a book – which turns out to be the second in a series.

Josephine Tey has gone to stay on the family estate of her friend Inspector Archie Penrose in Cornwall so she can get on with her next book.  But the peace of the village is disturbed by the recovery of a body from a lake on the estate. Accident, suicide or murder? Who knows more than they are telling? Everyone seems to have a secret. As one character says: ‘It gets complicated, doesn’t it, trying to remember who knows what. Sometimes it’s easier not to say anything at all, just to be sure you don’t make a mistake.’ When a second death occurs, Archie becomes professionally involved. He finds a ‘complex web of misplaced certainties and false logic’ – as does the reader.

Josephine Tey acts very much as an observer and sounding board for Penrose; she does not display any particular detective qualities herself. She is, however, a version of the real Josephine Tey (which was actually the pseudonym of Elizabeth Mackintosh, who also wrote as Gordon Daviot). Her relationship with Archie – who somewhat resembles Tey’s Inspector Grant – seems to have been more fully discussed in the first book in the series. Upson says that her character blends ‘some of what we know’ about Elizabeth Mackintosh, and some of the personality ‘which emerges so strongly’ from her crime stories. You can read more detail about Mackintosh, and how she might have reacted to being used as a character in a book, on Upson’s webpage here. In this story, she is starting to write the book that became A Shilling for Candles (1936), and it is probably no coincidence that a horse that plays an important part in this story is called Shilling. I found the information about Mackintosh interesting, but if I’d never heard of Josephine Tey, I doubt if having her as a character would actually add anything to the story.

The setting in Cornwell, which is lovingly described, is real, the estate being now the property of the National Trust. The book is set in 1935, but apart from the absence of modern forensic technology, there is nothing much to date it, apart from references to World War I. Some of the social attitudes seem more modern than I thought would have been the case in rural England in the 1930s, but maybe this estate really was a special case. It doesn’t come alive for me as history.

The setting in the 1930s and presence in the story of one of the writers of the Golden Age of crime writing lead to an expectation that somehow this story will resemble a classic puzzle mystery of that period. But this is not really the case. Indeed I think it falls between two – or even three – stools. The mystery is not solved by detection, but rather by the unfolding of events. So it’s not a classic puzzle which the detective – and the reader – can solve. Though one of the main characters is a policeman, it is not a police procedural, where the detective catches the criminal after following series of clues. It has more in common with some modern psychological thrillers – but because everyone has a secret, their inner thoughts cannot be revealed, leaving the whole question of motive very under-developed. Perhaps what lies behind the events could have a psychological truth to it, but certainly I don’t find the presentation of it convincing. The story potentially has elements of tragedy – but the writing, while perfectly competent – isn’t strong enough adequately to convey it.

Still, having said all that, it was quite an enjoyable book. And I do get overly picky about how the crime or mystery is resolved. The first Josephine Tey book in the series, An Expert in Murder (2008) was praised by PD James as marking ‘the arrival of a new and assured talent’, and coming from her, that’s a strong recommendation. There are now several more books in the series.

You can read more about Nicola Upson here. Some of the real Josephine Tey’s stories are available through the Gutenberg Project if you can’t find them in a library; here is Daughter of Time (1951).

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Gone Girl (2012) is the third novel by Gillian Flynn, though the first one I’ve read. It’s a mystery story, which is well written, with characters that are interesting, and some social comment that is relevant, and underneath the dark humour, thoughtful. I’ll be looking out for the two earlier ones.

On the day of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick arrives home to find his wife Amy has disappeared. It looks like there has been some kind of struggle. Has she been kidnapped? Or, is it, as the police conclude as the evidence piles up against him, that Nick has killed her, and tried to make it look like a kidnapping? The story, which is told by both Nick and Amy, is divided into three sections. In the first, Nick’s account of what happens after Amy’s disappearance is interleaved with Amy’s diary, which covers their original meeting in New York, their marriage, and their move to the town of North Carthage, Missouri. The second and third sections are told alternately by Nick and Amy. Right from the start, Nick admits that he isn’t telling the police the truth: ‘I’m a big fan of the lie of omission,’ he tells the reader. But what about Amy? The picture she presents of herself in her diary is very different from that presented by Nick. They both seem like unreliable narrators – on steroids. It’s a very clever story.

I like the way Flynn writes; it is modern American vernacular. It’s not ‘literary’ in any traditional sense, but it is vibrant and authentic. ‘But isn’t that the point of every relationship,’ Amy asks, ‘to be known by someone else, to be understood? He gets me. She gets me. Isn’t that the simple magic phrase?’ Nick and Amy are well developed characters. Amy’s parents used her as their inspiration for a series of popular children’s books entitled Amazing Amy; she feels they have stolen her identity, a form of ‘passive-aggressiveness towards their child’. Nick’s view is that she ‘needed to be Amazing Amy all the time.’ He also suffers from his upbringing: ‘The good stuff in me I got from my mom. I can joke, I can laugh, I can tease … I can operate in sunlight basically – but I can’t deal with angry or tearful women. I feel my father’s rage rise up in me in the ugliest way.’ Their relationship is however a bit over the top. I take it that this is because Flynn is satirising marriage in present day America, rather than as some critics have suggested, depicting what might be an actual marriage. Admittedly I have trouble with satire, not always recognising it – or perhaps seeing it where it isn’t intended – but here, the darkly humorous writing seems to indicate satire rather than straight-faced realism.

On the other hand, I take the setting of North Carthage, Missouri, to be totally realistic. This is small town middle America post the Global Financial Crisis. A combination of the GFC and the impact of the Internet meant that both Nick and Amy lost their jobs as writers in New York, and in part prompted the move back to Nick’s home town. It once hosted a giant shopping mall which employed nearly everyone in the town. The mall is now derelict, home only to the homeless. At night it was ‘suburbia, post-comet, post-zombie, post-humanity. A set of muddy shopping-cart tracks looped crazily along the white flooring. A racoon chewed on a dog treat in the entry to a women’s bathroom, his eyes flashing like dimes.’ Nearby towns are similarly dilapidated, with ‘a series of shuttered businesses – ruined community banks and defunct movie houses’. People sell their blood to make a few dollars. Am I wrong, and this is over the top and meant as satire? I don’t know what Flynn intended, but it is eerily similar to the description that Joe Bageant gives of poverty among the poor white population of his home town, Winchester, Virginia in Deer Hunting With Jesus.

This sense that Gone Girl is a novel saying something about post-GFC America goes deeper than just the setting. Most mystery stories, like most crime stories, are conservative in that the resolution of the mystery or crime returns society to an equilibrium upset by crime. But here there is no equilibrium, no moral compass restored. Nick and Amy have no moral compass. Nick’s twin sister Margot does, but hers is a subordinate role throughout the story, and cannot carry enough weight to anchor Nick and Amy. Nick knows he is hollow; ‘It’s a very difficult era in which to be a person,’ he says, ‘just a real, actual person, instead of a collection of personality traits selected from an endless Automat of characters … It’s gotten to the point where it seems like nothing matters, because I’m not a real person, and neither is anyone else.’ Just like the mall, Nick and Amy are ‘post-humanity’.

You can read an interesting interview here with Flynn, in which she discusses her view of feminism, but be warned that the discussion gives important clues to what happens in the story. She also says, surprisingly given the cleverness of the plot, that she doesn’t fully chart her stories from the beginning, instead ‘pursuing numerous dead-ends’. Perhaps the twin sister was a dead end; she’s really the only lose end in the book.

You can read more about Gillian Flynn here.

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Robert Goddard has published a mystery adventure story nearly every year since he started writing in 1986. This one was published in 2012, and I see that there’s already a new one out for 2013. I’ve read most of them over the years; inevitably, some are better than others. This one isn’t his best, but it is still an entertaining read.

Goddard says ‘I find the roots of my writing in my preoccupations with the impact of the past on the present’. Most of his main characters find themselves delving into a mystery hidden in the past, but with the power to influence the present. This one is no exception.  It is 2010. Jonathan Kellaway is one the verge of retirement from the company – now a multinational – that he has worked for all of his life. His job designation is vague – he is seen as the company’s ‘senior trouble-shooter’. But before he goes, the former Chairman, Greville Lashley, who is still a force in the company, wants him to do one last job for him. It seems that Lashley has employed a historian to write a history of the company, but she has found that some of the early records are missing, replaced in their folders by blank paper. Lashley wants Kellaway to find what has become of the missing documents. Kellaway agrees, but with reservations; he has had quite a lot of dealings with Lashley’s family in the past, and digging up corporate history is likely to involve him in things he’d rather forget. ‘A mystery I thought I’d put behind me,’ he says, ‘had tapped me on the shoulder.’ The story then moves to those dealings, first in 1968, then in 1984, coming back at times to the present day investigation.

Like most of Goddard’s books, this has a fairly complex plot, where the relevance of what is included only becomes clear at the end. Readers of this blog will know that I set considerable store on good endings, and while this one does draw together all parts of the narrative, I don’t think it is as good as some of the earlier ones. But perhaps I’m being unreasonable.

Another of the themes that is important to Goddard is the operation of loyalty and treachery. A favour done in return for some personal advantage may seem minor at the time, but leads to deeper webs of intrigue. Small betrayals lead to larger ones. But a decision taken from a sense of obligation can also lead to disaster. ‘I never saw it coming – never guessed how the dominoes might fall. But I pushed them. There’s no denying that. This tragedy was man-made. I should know. I was one of those who made it.’ But any treachery Jonathan may be guilty of pales before that of other characters, and it is these betrayals that drive the story. But I wondered nevertheless if Kellaway’s final decision also a betrayal.

Kellaway, like most of Goddard’s protagonists, is very much an ordinary person with no special powers or expertise. He obviously grows up during the course of the story, but the skills or talents that have made him the company’s ‘senior trouble-shooter’ are not discussed, and not really on show. The Kellaway of 1985 is not quite the brash young man of 1968, but he could still feel ‘fearful and insecure’. ‘All I knew for certain,’ he says, ‘was that I was out of my depth.’ Looking back, he realises ‘There was a subtext to events that I’d failed to see, let alone read.’ Perhaps there isn’t enough difference between Kellaway at eighteen and Kellaway at sixty – he sounds the same in all three time periods. This is complicated by the fact that it’s not always clear how far events are taking place in the present  – though an earlier present – and how far they are being recalled. This is perhaps a weakness in the structure of the story.

Goddard said when he first started as a novelist that ‘I was inspired to take up writing by a growing dissatisfaction with much contemporary literature in which I detect a growing rift between technique and meaning. By wedding richness of language and intricacy of plot to narrative drive and dense imagery, I seek to heal that rift’. I thought with some of the earlier books that he might indeed be producing work of the stature of other great mystery writers, such as Wilkie Collins or Daphne du Maurier. This one isn’t up to that standard, or even his own stated intent. Perhaps you can’t write more than twenty books of that quality. Or perhaps I should just be pleased to have found an easy and enjoyable read without asking for more.

You can see more about Robert Goddard here.

PS This is yet another book where the blurb on the cover is quite misleading as to the story. What is with this?

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Since I’m on about modern gothic, here’s another one …

The Thirteenth Tale (2006) is Diane Setterfield’s first book, and it had a dream debut – top of the New York Times best seller list in its first week, large advances in the US and the UK and gratifying sales. But is it really a good book, or just the product of publishing hype?

Margaret Lea works in her father’s antiquarian bookshop in Cambridge, and loves nineteenth century literature, particularly the Brontes. She is surprised to receive an offer to write the biography of Vida Winter, one of Britain’s best loved writers, because Margaret isn’t really a biographer – she has merely written a few biographical notes on minor literary figures she has come across in her work. It is also surprising because Vida Winter is notoriously secretive about her background, telling different stories to anyone who asks. In her letter to Margaret, she says that this time, she will tell the truth. Margaret accepts, and begins interviewing Vida. But is she really being honest? ’She meant to tell the truth; I did not doubt it. She had decided to tell. Perhaps she even wanted to tell. Only she did not quite believe that she would.’ And what of Margaret’s own story?

Margaret, the first person narrator, is the anchor for the novel; other people tell their stories to her and she transcribes them, sometimes in the third person, sometimes as ‘we’ and sometimes as ‘I. (Margaret’s recall is nothing short of miraculous; she is able to reproduce the most detailed descriptions and conversations from sketchy notes.) Because of the way the novel is structured, the reader is told things that the story teller cannot have known: that is, the story teller is essentially guessing. Vida has pieced together events before she was born. ‘It is this story – the one that came to me in hints, glances and silences – that I am going to translate into words for you now.’ Hmm. Hints, glances and silences leave a lot of latitude to the translator. I think this is a weakness in the structure, though it does, perhaps intentionally, highlight the provisional nature of all story telling. There is of course, as the reader has been warned, a sleight of hand in Vida’s narrative. I didn’t find it entirely convincing, though looking back, the preparation for it is clever. Vida choses her words carefully – as you would expect of a writer. She never actually lies, though she does leave Margaret to find the truth.

The story Vida tells can only be described as Gothic melodrama, involving obsession, madness, an isolated old mansion and possibly a ghost. There are direct references to Jane Eyre and allusions to Wuthering Heights which strengthen the gothic air. Twins and twin behaviour are also important in the story, though the behaviour Vida describes is surely produced by isolation and neglect as much as by the fact of twin-ness. I guess that ‘Gothic’ and ‘credible’ don’t go together; this sort of story is meant to be over the top, and it’s a matter of taste whether or not you like it. I certainly kept on reading.

Early in the book, Margaret reveals that she also had a twin sister who died shortly after birth; she is haunted by a feeling of loss and senses her sister everywhere. ‘Her closeness repelled me; her distance broke my heart; every sight of her evoked in me the familiar combination of fear and longing.’ This sense of the lost twin is part of her link to Vida’s story, but I think it is an unnecessary diversion. One melodrama is quite enough in any novel.

One slightly disconcerting thing about the book is that it contains almost no social detail, to the point where I can’t really say when it is supposed to be taking place. There are no clues like computers or mobile phones to place Margaret in the present; people communicate by letter. Vida is looking back over forty years or more to a time that may be the nineteen twenties or thirties, so probably Margaret is writing in the nineteen sixties or seventies. If so, World War II seems to have passed them by. I don’t suppose it matters; perhaps it is designed to keep the focus on the gothic atmosphere. But I do find it odd.

So what took the book to the top of the New York Times best seller list? It’s well written, and the story kept my attention. The plot is quite subtle, though more in retrospect than as it first unfolds. It’s easy to read, and not really challenging. All these factors are likely to make it popular. It’s a good read, but certainly not a great book.

You can find out more about Diane Setterfield here – she does sound a nice person! No second book has yet been forth coming, though there may be a novella – a ghost story – out in 2013.

 

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Kate Morton is an Australian writer, though she sets her books mostly in England. She also uses the conventions of Victorian and early twentieth century English literature, in particular the gothic mystery, which is the area of her academic research. I mention this because I thought her two earlier books, The House at Riverton (2006) (also known as The Shifting Fog) and The Forgotten Garden (2008) both had an air of being manufactured from an assembly of Victorian components, rather than coming alive as fully imagined. I didn’t think they were significant enough to post on. Needless to say, a lot of other people disagree; they have been on best-seller lists in the UK and the US, and The House at Riverton won General Fiction Book of the Year at the 2007 Australian Book Industry Awards. If I didn’t like the first two, why did I bother with another one? I was given The Distant Hours (2010) as a present, and it seemed a waste not to read it. And I do actually like this book better than the earlier ones.

The action takes place in 1992, and at several dates in the period 1939-41. The 1990s story is mostly narrated by Edith Burchill, a young woman who works in a small publishing house, and is fascinated by books. One day her mother, Meredith, receives a redirected letter, sent in 1941 but lost in the chaos of the war. She tells Edith that it is from Juniper Blythe, a friend she made when she was evacuated from London in 1939 to Milderhurst Castle. Juniper is the daughter of Raymond Blythe, the author of a famous children’s book, The True History of the Mud Man, which Edith still loves. Soon after, Edith finds herself at the gates of the castle, and remembers that she has been there before with her mother. Slowly she is drawn into the literary mystery which surrounds the writing of the True History, and the secrets of Juniper and her twin sisters, who still live at the castle. The 1939-41 sections of the story, which interleave with Edith’s narration, tell the story from the sisters’ point of view, and gradually reveal how Edith’s life is entangled with theirs.

Edith is an engaging enough character, though in a fairly conventional way. She likes books, is dreamy and imaginative, is getting over a broken romance and has a rather prickly relationship with her mother. And her assumptions about things aren’t always correct. What is there not to like? She is perhaps a little too consciously naïve – to use a phrase from another book about a castle. All the major characters are quite skilfully drawn, though none is really striking. Morton in general writes well, though at times her style is a little lush and wordy. I thought the dialogue a bit stilted at the beginning, but it improved as the story progressed.

For most of the book, the plot moves slowly; there is a lot of detail about what is happening in both of the periods. I don’t mind this, though I did sometimes wonder where it was all going. Shifting back and forwards in time can interrupt the narrative flow, but I think Morton has managed her plot well. The time shifts give a sense of moving inevitably – if slowly – to a point where the narratives will meet, and all will be revealed. And so it is, though only to the reader, who learns the true story of the mud man; there are some mysteries that Edith cannot solve. The conclusion is perhaps a bit frenetic – and perhaps in places a bit obscure – especially after the leisurely pace of the rest of the story. But it is gothic melodrama we’re talking about here –even if it is a twentieth century version of it.

I guess that any modern writer who uses conventions from an earlier period runs the risk of producing something that feels a bit artificial. Elements of the gothic are central to the story: the decaying castle, with its secret passage, the sense of mystery and menace arising from the mud man described in the prologue, and continued by suggestions that the very walls of the castle have absorbed fears and nightmares of times past – the ‘distant hours’ of the title. There is madness and guilt. And the sisters are in a real way confined to the castle, even if that confinement is not physical. But I think Morton has applied these conventions with a lighter hand than in her previous books; they are allusions to the gothic, rather than a full scale adoption of it. It is contrived, but not egregiously so.

You can find out about Kate Morton here: her web page includes an interview with her by the Brisbane Times. I might even read her next book, The Secret Keeper (2012).

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The Brutal Art (2008) – The Genius in the US – is the third of Kellerman’s five books. Ethan Muller, who narrates quite a lot of the novel, initially says it’s a detective story. But, as he later acknowledges, it isn’t really. ‘If I’m still writing a detective story – and I’m not so sure that I am …’ he says. I’m not so sure either. If it fits any kind of genre, it is the mystery story where the ordinary person hero sets out to solve some puzzle in which they inadvertently find themselves. But I don’t think it’s really a genre novel at all.

Ethan Muller looks back over his recent past to tell his story. At the time it begins, he is an art dealer, the maverick son of a rich New York family, almost totally estranged from his father. One day he is shown some drawings that have been found in a vacant apartment in a building owned by his family. He immediately sees that they are brilliant – the work, perhaps, of a genius. But where is the man who drew them? Ethan meets a retired policeman who tells him some of the faces in the drawings are those of young boys murdered years before. Could the unknown artist have killed them? Ethan feels driven to find out. Alongside this story we learn how the poor Jewish immigrant Solomon Mueller started out in America, and how succeeding generations of the family, now Mullers, prospered in material terms, but dealt badly with other aspects of their lives. What has this to do with Ethan and his missing artist? And how does his search change his life?

The novel thus operates on three levels. One is Ethan’s search for the artist, a well-constructed story with what turn out to be red herrings and dead ends, and some material that seems irrelevant but ends up being part of the resolution of the mystery. The second is the story of the family over time, presented as a series of interludes in the main story, much of it given immediacy by being in the present tense. This story must be seen as existing in its own right, being too detailed to be simply background for Ethan’s search. I find this narrative adequate, but no more than that; there is too much telling and not enough showing. Kellerman does nevertheless achieve a good sense of the inevitable convergence of the two stories, and there are enjoyable twists, including the one at the end – that I didn’t see coming – that finally ties the two stories together in quite a clever way.

The third level is what happens to Ethan’s own view of himself. He is an engaging character, particularly if you can forget that he is an over-privileged and rather selfish young man. The use of the first person helps the reader to take a sympathetic view of him, particularly as he has some insight into his own behaviour. ‘If we’re being honest,’ he says, ‘let’s be honest: I was motivated by greed and, more important, by narcissism: a sense of entitlement that runs deep in my genes and that I can’t seem to shake, no matter how ugly it makes me feel, some of the time.’ He acknowledges that his narcissism ‘can’t stomach too much guilt. It vomits back up rage.’ He finds he is able to relax when his girlfriend is away: ‘That’s the way you’re supposed to feel about your parents, not your lover. Not that I was an authority on either.’ ‘Know thyself,’ he says. But then adds: ‘Christ. I promised myself I’d make an effort to avoid sounding like a pretentious prick.’ By the end, he is able to acknowledge that ‘it has taken me a while to understand my own limitations.’ It’s important whether or not the
reader finds him an attractive character, because his personal journey is central to the book.

Another factor in Ethan’s self-discovery is his difficult relationship with his father. He says that after his mother died, he ‘felt like a pet that belonged to her, and that [his father] got stuck with.’ Others in earlier generations could have said something similar. The problematic relationship between parents and children, especially fathers and sons, is one of the book’s themes, and contributes to tying the stories of past and present together. It is this layering, and interest in the psychological makeup of his characters, that take this novel beyond the genre label. It’s a good novel, but hardly a great one.

Being about art, there are lots of references to various real as well as imaginary artists, the real ones mostly producing ‘outsider art’. This is also called art brut, meaning raw art – hence the pun in the English title, lost in the American one. Kellerman is also concerned with the nature of genius, which Ethan ‘sought by proxy’ but can never have. I like the English title better.

You can find more about Jesse Kellerman here. He is not to be confused with Faye or Jonathan Kellerman, both of whom write best-selling mystery stories. They are his parents.

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Vigilant readers may remember that some time ago I reviewed Kostova’s first book, The Historian (2005), and found it quite enjoyable but lacking whatever it is that turns a good book into an excellent one. Why did I read her second one (2010)? I was attracted by the references to the historical side of the story, which is set against the rise of French Impressionism, and I like books that relate the past to the present. But I should probably have known better, because it was a repeat experience – a pleasant enough read, but certainly reaching no great heights.

The painter Robert Oliver becomes a patient of psychiatrist Dr Andrew Marlow because he has tried to attack a painting in the Washington National Gallery. After saying a few words when he is admitted to the psychiatric hospital, he refuses to speak at all. Marlow, who is an amateur painter, gives Oliver painting supplies. He finds that Oliver obsessively draws and paints only one subject, a young woman in nineteenth century clothes. In order to find the reason for Oliver’s outbreak, Marlow tries to understand this apparent fixation. He visits the painting Oliver attacked, talks with his former wife Kate and girlfriend Mary and has some nineteenth century letters in Oliver’s possession translated from the French. Marlow is the main first person narrator; he is looking back at events that happened several years before. Kate and Mary also have their own sections where they tell Marlow, or write down for him in the first person, their experiences with Oliver – in quite unrealistic detail, I might add. The letters are included, and there are also sections dated 1879 which, in the present tense, tell of the life of a French painter, Béatrice de Clerval, who is the writer of some of the letters. It is not giving anything away to say she is also the object of Oliver’s obsession, since this is obvious to the reader, though not to the other characters, from the first.

There are two main themes in the story – obsession and love. Given the title, the main narrative drive should come from the mystery of Oliver’s obsession, mirrored to a lesser degree by Marlow’s near obsession with finding out about it. But the story proceeds at such a leisurely pace that this focus is often lost. In the early pages especially, I found myself getting impatient. Where was all this going? But at the same time, the Marlow’s narrative is also a love story, and it is almost worth thinking of the book as a classic romance – the meeting, the obstacles, the way they are overcome. The nineteenth century section is also a love story, as in their way are Kate’s and Mary’s stories, though not all of these romance sub-plots end happily. The historical and the main modern romance have some elements in common, so Kostova clearly meant parallels to be drawn. Seen as a mystery, the story is a bit far-fetched for my liking, with a bit too much coincidence in the dénouement. Seen as a romance, it works quite well. Kostova writes very readable prose, and her characters are likeable and interesting, though the voices of Kate and Mary are rather too similar – a criticism I also had of supposedly different voices in The Historian.

But for me, the main interest is the painting, both the activity and the works produced. Almost all the main characters are painters, and there is a good deal of discussion of their craft, both in the present, and to a lesser degree in the 1870s. Oliver is a good painter and a good teacher; he ‘made it seem easy, this viewing of basic forms and blocking them in, adding color, touching them with light’. Mary’s painting was ‘a scene of soft, rough colors – the blue of the sea with the colorless sheen of evening already on its surface’. And the description of ‘The Swan Thieves’ brings this imaginary painting so much to life – ‘a largish canvas, about four feet by three, rendered in the bright palette of the Impressionists’ – that it is hard to believe it doesn’t really exist somewhere. Some of the paintings discussed are real, though most are not. The ‘Leda and the Swan’ Oliver appeared to be attacking is not real, though the artist to whom it is attributed, Gilbert Thomas, is. Nor is Thomas’s ’self- portrait’ real. The book begins with a prologue in which Alfred Sisley is painting a snow scene in a French village, and while he did paint snow scenes, I can’t find any that match this one. However like Béatrice de Clerval in the story, several of the Impressionists did paint in Etretat and other villages in Normandy, and I enjoyed following up the works referred to.

I gather there are quite divided responses to this book among readers. For me, it’s a case of character and setting winning out over story. As I said, a pleasant read, though not a really compelling one.

You can find out more about Elizabeth Kostova here.

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