Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Bones of Paris

I have been a big fan of Laurie King's work for years (the Mary Russell and Kate Martinelli series, as well as her stand alones) so was happy to see this new (2013) morsel. It grabs you right away and does not let go, keeping you guessing abot who is going to be next and who did what to whom. Set in late 1920's Paris, it is a detailed portrayal of the expat American community and the art scene in particular. The surrealists were making a statement about art-- above and beyond realism and above and beyond conventional mores and morality.
Harris Stuyveysant is a former Bureau agent (as in J.E.Hoover's bureau) who became disaffected and is now working as a solo investigator, roaming around Europe. There are hints sprinkled throughout the book that a bombing played a significant role in that decision--as it cost not only lives, but also the loss of the left hand of the woman he was in love with, Sarah. He has not seen or heard from her in several years, although he stays in touch, via postcards, with her brother, Bennett Grey. Grey has the unlucky distinction of having died in the war but being brought back to life with an out of control sensitivity to everything going on around him. He can tell a mile away if someone is lying and of course the government (British) would very much like to use that skill. He would very much like not to, and he lives as a hermit in Cornwall. When Harris sends Bennett several photographs of women who look terrified and asks if they are real or staged, Bennet feels compelled to come to Paris and this precipitates the climax of the book.
Leading up to that, Harris has come to Paris to try and locate a missing person, Philippa Crosby, at the behest of her uncle and mother. She is a young American woman who has been living in Paris for several years, but has now been out of contact for several months. By happenstance, Harris encountered Philippa in Nice prior to her disappearance and had a brief sexual fling with her, so he is motivated by more than money. When Harris goes to the Paris police to let them know he is pursuing the case, he finds out that the inspector, Emile Doucet, thinks there might be an emerging pattern to several recent disappearances. When Harris fails to turn up any evidence that Philippa is alive, he begins to believe she has come to a bad end. Meanwhile, pursuing Philippa's contacts in the art community, Harris learns about a surrealist theatre, the Grand Guignol, which ostensibly seeks to heal those traumatized by war by offering cathartic experiences of terror on the stage. Harris is not favorably impressed and, in fact, comes to believe several people associated with the theatre and the surrealist community (e.g., Man Ray) are potential suspects in Philippa's disappearance. When he drunkenly blunders into a confrontation with Man Ray and the theatre's patron, Comte Charmentier, he is stunned to find that Sarah Grey is working for the Comte. And to confound issues even further, she is engaged to Emile Doucet.
When Sarah disappears, Bennett and Emile Doucet go to talk to Charmentier, but are attacked by a gunman in an alley. Doucet is shot and now in a coma; Bennett has disappeared. Harris gets himself thrown in jail after confronting Ray in the hunt for Sarah, and then is accused of shooting Doucet. You don't know until the very end if Sarah is alive or dead, and whether or not Bennett will survive. King is a writer of great skill with complex, well-realized characters, vivid sense of place and compelling plots. A great read! King's book Touchstone, published in 2007, precedes this one with two of the characters, Stuyvesant and Bennett Grey.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Brat Farrar

I have heard a lot about Josephine Tey (a pseudonym used by Elizabeth Mackintosh) over the years. She is one of that pantheon of distinguished English (Scottish actually) mystery writers who has gone down in legend, so I grabbed one of her books to take to England! Brat Farrar, also published under the title Come and Kill Me, first appeared in 1949.  Brat Farrar, a relatively poor young British expat who made his way working with horses in America, has returned to England. He is accosted on the street by a man, Alex Loding, claiming Brat is the spitting image of the long-dead (supposedly) heir to a reputable stable, Patrick Ashby. He persuades Brat to "return" to the farm and dispossess his twin, Simon Ashby, who is set to take over the stables on his upcoming birthday. As Brat gets more and more enmeshed in the family, he comes to suspect that the missing Patrick's death was not a suicide as many believed, but a murder by his brother Simon. Of course if Brat shares what he finds out, he will be revealed as an imposter and lose the only family and home he has ever known. Simon of course cannot tell the family of Brat's identity without giving away his own guilt, but he might just try his luck a 2nd time. Intriguing and tightly crafted plot, believable characters, and an English setting all served to make this a satisfying read.

Time and Chance

I picked this historical novel by Sharon Kay Penman from the sale table because I had liked a couple of her historically based mysteries (e.g., The Queen's Man). Penman is a competent historian (an Author's Note details the liberties she has taken with history and discusses some of her sources) and a fine craftswoman as a writer. I became absolutely engrossed in this story, which begins two years into the reign of Henry II, 1156, and continues until 1171, shortly after the murder of Thomas Becket. Henry and his equally famous queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, come to life as flesh and blood people with charismatic and strategic skills, as well as human failings. Eleanor is as astute a politician as Henry and so it chafes her and echoes down the years when Henry ignores her advice against elevating Thomas Becket from Chancellor to Archbishop of Canterbury. Henry and Thomas have been of the same mind for years and made a nearly irresistible alliance in bringing a fragmented England, as well as significant parts of France, into a more cohesive kingdom. Henry desires to bring the Church to heel in his quest for control and lawfulness, and sees putting his ally Thomas into the most powerful position in England as a brilliant strategic move. Eleanor has never trusted Thomas, and when he experiences a religious conversion after taking holy orders, her distrust is validated. Henry feels betrayed and the feud between the two men continues to escalate until Thomas is living in exile. When the Pope pressures for reconciliation, Thomas returns to England, not the least bit repentent or conciliatory and immediately takes actions that enrage Henry once more. In the heat of the moment, Henry speaks rashly against Thomas and some young noblemen take it upon themselves to rid the king of this troublesome man. Eleanor is the mother of Henry's eight children--the 2nd oldest of whom, Richard, is to become the Lionheart. She is also the force that holds the kingdom together when Henry is off fighting. Eleanor and Henry have shared not only a bed, but ambition and visions for empire, and she feels betrayed by Henry's installing a young concubine in their favorite home in England, Woodstock. As her friend Maud advises, you must take Henry as he is or learn to love him less--and Eleanor chooses the latter. They have lived mostly apart when Henry was off putting down various rebellions, now they live separately because she can hardly bear the humiliation he has foisted upon her. There is apparently a previous novel about Henry and Eleanor, When Christ and his Saints Slept,  as well as a sequel, Devil's Brood. Penman has a substantial body of work, including a 2-part series about Richard the Lionheart, several other tales of English rulers, and her mysteries. If you like historical novels, you can't go wrong here .

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Top Secret Twenty One

I know Janet Evanovich solicits titles from her readers for the Stephanie Plum number series, but I do not know if the titles come first --stimulating plot ideas--or she writes the book first and then picks the title that best matches the plot line. In any case, there are some new elements and some of the more familiar plot devices in this latest installment. Ranger and Stephanie are still dancing around each other, although Stephanie remains sexually faithful--in behavior if not in fantasy--to Joe Morelli. Another car gets destroyed, although not burned up--this time while Lula is sleeping in the front seat. One of Stephanie's old contacts, height-challenged Randy Briggs, is being targeted by his boss, Jimmy Poletti, one of Stephanie's FTA's. She plans to use Briggs as bait. Polletti and Randy are persons of interest because they are key players in a drugs and sex slaves ring operating between Mexico and New Jersey. Someone has sent a missile into Briggs' apartment, leaving him homeless and now he is camped out with Stephanie--a highly undesirable situation for all kinds of reasons. Meanwhile, someone is also targeting Ranger with intent to harm and with deadly nuclear materials, so now the FBI is involved. Worse yet, the material, designed to be placed into the ventilation system at Rangeman headquarters, may just be a trial run for a larger target. Stephanie gets enlisted to help Ranger smoke out the would-be assassin and, in the process, becomes #2 on the hit list.  Last but not least, Grandma Mazur is at war with Morelli's Grandma Bella. But wait, I forgot the pack of feral chihuahuas guarding another one of Stephanie's FTA's. Yikes! A bit more complex and a little less formulaic than recent entries in the series, and still lots of fun.

The Long Way Home

I always anticipate the arrival of a new Louise Penny installment of the Inspector Gamache series with curiosity and high expectations for luscious dining. Apparently, a lot of people agree, for her last couple of books have debuted at first position on the NYT Bestseller list. She is such a fine writer of character, place and plot that it is just pure pleasure to read her novels. And, by now, all these characters have become so familiar and beloved. Clara's husband Peter is missing. They separated over a year ago and promised each other they would reconnect in a year. So far there has only been silence and Clara fears the worst. She is reluctant to voice her fears to the Armand, who is now retired and living in Three Pines. But he cannot let the disappearance go uninvestigated. And so begins a journey through the mind of Peter Morrow, who apparently has gone on a  globe-trotting pilgrimage to recover his artistic soul. Myrna, Clara, Jean Guy and even Ruth all pursue leads through old art school faculty and Peter's estranged family to finally locate his likely destination, in an out of the way town in the back of Quebec. It remains unclear almost to the very end who has the "sin sick soul" and what terrible deeds he has  wrought, but eventually Peter and Clara are reunited, just for a moment. It is a bittersweet ending. I cannot recommend these books enough--read them in order starting with Still Life! She continues to delve into the hearts and minds of her characters--very human and very fallible-- and make them even more remarkable and engaging. Penny has had her own life challenges in dealing with her husband's encroaching Alzheimer's disease, and her humanity absolutely shines through.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Alpine Traitor

This part of the "Emma Lord" series by Mary Daheim that is set in the fictional town of Alpine, somewhere out Hiway 2 towards Stevens Pass in Washington state. Having lived in Seattle 18 years, I was attracted because I like reading books set in surroundings I might recognize and I had heard positive reviews of this author. I would say this is competent but not outstanding. I found little things irritating like the fact that the sheriff, Milo, never walks, strolls or ambles, but always lopes out of the room. Not being really sure what that looked like, I checked with dictionary.com and found that, although usually applied to quadrapeds, it can apply to a person and conveys "with a long, easy stride." OK, fair enough, but pick another verb to use once in a while.
To the plot. Apparently, Emma Lord had a son, now a priest in his 30's, with a married man, Tom Cavanaugh. When he left his wife, who was mentally unbalanced, Tom and Emma renewed their relationship and were on the verge of getting married when he was killed. That was about 5 years ago. Emma is the owner of the town's weekly newspaper and has about 4 people working for her. Out of the blue, she receives a call, ostensibly from the husband of her deceased fiance's daughter, making an offer to buy the paper. According to this caller, the Cavanaugh children and their spouses want to buy the paper because they are expanding the newspaper empire left to them by their father, Tom. Emma is adamant that she is not interested in selling. Then this person turns up dead. Except it turns out he wasn't really the person he claimed to be, and said husband is alive and well. Meanwhile though the Cavanaugh children and spouses have started converging on Alpine. Emma makes efforts to talk with them but this seems to go nowhere. One of her employees is the next to be shot, although not killed. The plot is complicated by yet another revelation that someone is not who they claim to be. There are certainly a lot of colorful characters and I suspect if you read a number of these books, they would get to seem like old friends. However, there was not enough appealing about this book to send me in search of more in the series. Recommended only if you don't have something else you would rather read.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Last Scene Alive

This is #7 in the Aurora Teagarden series by Charlaine Harris. Aurora is still sunk in the gray landscape of loss from the death of her husband Martin (see previous post for A Fool and His Honey). Apparently, her former writer friend, Robin Crusoe, has optioned one of his books--loosely based on a series of murders that occurred in Lawrenceton, which Aurora helped the police to solve. As a result, a film company is coming to town and some "B" level starlet--who may or may not still be involved with Robin--is going to play the Aurora-based character in the movie. Aurora does not want to have anything to do with it, and struggles not to take it personally when friends in town get involved in and excited about the the making of the movie. Of course, the actress playing Aurora gets murdered, and Aurora will have to find the killer or risk suffering the same fate. On the bright side, the flame seems to have been rekindled with Robin and Aurora begins to see a light at the end of her dark tunnel of mourning. Well done, fast-paced read.