Whew! I have been busy reading this summer, but not too busy posting as you may have noticed. So, here is a quick look at some of the great and not-so-great mysteries I’ve read this late summer. I’ll post soon a list of books I plan to read this fall, and have a few longer reviews as well.
As I wandered through the maze of stacks at Portland’s Powell’s Books, I noticed a staff suggestion for Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong. I was able to pick up a used copy and devoured it on the flight back to Chicago. Set in Shanghai in the early 1990s, the novel offers a hint of the changing face of China that we’ve become familiar with since — burgeoning capitalism, a crumbling party system, and a fascination with all things Western. It follows Chief Inspector Chen Chao, an up-and-comer in the party, and the more experienced (but subordinate) police officer, Seargeant Yu, as they investigate the murder of a young woman who turns out to be a national model worker. Qui’s description of everyday life, from the cramped apartments, the rationed and somewhat unappetizing-sounding food, and an overwhelming lack of any privacy (space or otherwise), is compelling. Having visited Shanghai in the past few years, I am amazed at how much the country has changed in just a couple of decades. Qui also paints a vivid picture of the communist party machine and how it is woven into the personal and professional lives of his characters. While the mystery itself is not particularly tricky or complicated, the character development and descriptions of Chinese life make the novel well worth reading.
I recently read Murder as a Fine Art, by David Morrell, based on the recommendation of a friend who said that Morrell was her absolute favorite professor at the University of Iowa. I can imagine why. Morrell offers up a juicy, rich mystery set in post-Ripper London. He tracks actual events that surrounded the Ratcliffe Highway murders, and events recounted in Thomas DeQuincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. I promptly did a little research into both, and Morrell so tightly and adeptly merges fact with fiction, that it is hard to imagine that his characters were not real. Actually, many were, but you get the idea. The character of DeQuincey’s feisty, feminist daughter, Emily, was my favorite. Well worth a read. As an aside, I then turned to Morrell’s, Nightscape, hoping for another book along the same vein. Nightscape is most decidedly not a classic mystery but, instead, is a series of short horror stories – some with a mysterious twist or two. I found it more disturbing than enjoyable, but perhaps that was his point.
Jar City, by Arnaldur Indridason, was cold and crisp, both in style and setting. The book is one in a series of Inspector Erlendur novels, set in Reykjavik, Iceland. It is more thriller than mystery, and has a gritty almost nauseating undertone. Now, that seems like I am not recommending it, but I am, just not quite whole-heartedly. It just isn’t for the squeamish reader or one who cares more about an intricate mystery plot than crime-based thriller. I didn’t instantly warm to Erlendur, but I’m quite sure that was Indridason’s intent. He is estranged to the “nth degree” from his ex-wife (and pretty much from both of his mostly grown children). We are left to wonder why, with a smattering of clues that will likely trickle out over several books. I noticed that Jar City is being adapted into a movie and I’ll be sure to catch that. The book didn’t make leap Reykjavik to the top of my vacation book, but it did make me want to read more of Indridason’s world.
I’m not sure I’ve talked much about the Richard Jury series, by Martha Grimes. The books follow Inspector Richard Jury (of Scotland Yard) and are inhabited by plethora of supporting characters, including Melrose Plant (Jury’s friend, an Earl who was given up his title), Sergeant Wiggins (Jury’s hypochondriac assistant), Carole Anne (Jury’s gorgeous, slightly ding-batty upstairs neighbor) and a host of folks in Long Piddleton (Melrose Plant’s neck of the woods). I have enjoyed many of the 43 Richard Jury novels, all of which (I believe) are titled after British pubs. I admit to getting somewhat annoyed with some of Grime’s background characters, particularly Melrose Plant’s Aunt Agatha, and, in fact, with Richard Jury himself for his frustratingly open-ended relationships with women. So, the Old Contemptibles was a refreshing change that saw Jury more ready to commit than previously (he bought an engagement ring) to a woman at the center of the plot. The mystery takes us to an old British estate, a high-end retirement mansion, and through the “Lake Country” of Wordsworth and Coleridge. I pick up these books when I am looking for something familiar, not too gritty, and entertaining, and this installment did not disappoint.
Finally, I found my way back to John le Carre. I really wanted to see A Most Wanted Man, based on le Carre’s book of the same name, and starring the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman. It was a classic le Carre, complete with intrigue, tension and a really crappy, depressing ending. Nevertheless, what I would still call a good movie. And, once I got over being pissed off at le Carre, I saw A Delicate Truth, near the check-out stand and decided to give it a go. It follows a now-retired MI6 operator, “Kit” –not really a field operator, who gets swept into a government cover-up. Years earlier, Kit had been recruited by an MP to be his eyes-and-ears on the ground of a highly covert terrorist extraction that goes horribly wrong. Kit did not realize how horribly wrong until one of the soldiers who participated in the operation finds him and tries to tell him the truth before, well, you get the idea . . . Together with a former assistant to the MP, Toby Bell, Kit does what he can to uncover what really happened. le Carre makes no effort to hide his disdain for the morally corrupt Americans (both corporate and governmental types). And true to form, le Carre doesn’t really come down on one side or the other as to whether spying is a necessary evil, or just evil. For a change, he does offer a vague (and possibly optimistic) ending. Somehow, I doubt it all ends well, but there is at least a shred of light that things could work out. If you enjoy the classic spy thriller, this le Carre will be right up your alley.