24 May 2015

Hillerman reprise

Eight months ago, I picked up a paperback by Anne Hillerman at Half Price Books. Anne Hillerman is the daughter of Tony Hillerman of Navajo mystery fame. She took possession of several of her father's characters for her own attempt at mystery writing.

Okay, I wanted to read more about Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, but did I want to read what the daughter of their creator wrote? In hard cover or at full price, probably not. This was a chance I was willing to take. Glad I did.

But it took awhile for me to read the book. I put it in the glove box of the Miata. I put the Miata in storage last October. I tried to get it out a couple weeks ago, but there was this flat tire. When I got the repaired tire back on the car Saturday, I discovered the battery was dead. Even after I borrowed a car and jumper cables, the battery would not hold a charge. But I did find the book.

Anne Hillerman
It is Spider Woman's Daughter, and it's told mostly by Bernadette (Bernie) Manuelito, the daughter and granddaughter of Navajo weavers, Navajo police officer, and wife of Jim Chee.  There is a much more feminine perspective in this story telling compared to the stories Tony Hillerman told. There are a lot of references to the spider women (weavers) in Bernie's family. There are a lot more female characters.

Anne Hillerman follows her father's model by extolling the beauty of the desert while describing some of the long drives through the reservation and to nearby cities. She stays true to his characters, although Joe Leaphorn is unconcious in a hospital bed during most of the story. (Spoiler Alert: It's really not nice to nearly kill off your father's original hero in the first chapter of your book.) She weaves a good story and a complex mystery that takes place partly on and partly off the reservation. So local cops, the FBI, and the Navajo police are involved.

I had the feeling several times that sections of the book were originally longer than the published version and that the editor guided the author in slimming down the size of the novel. Those "abbreviations" didn't always help, but it was a 360-page paperback.

On the other hand, some of the pivotal action scenes seemed to go on and on and on. It happens on TV mysteries and in some books, but do evil doers ever take time to explain what they're doing and why to their victims? If it were me, I'd pull the trigger, start the fire, crash the car and get out. Explanations? Who needs them? Oh, readers or viewers who didn't get the message from the story! Seems like a deficit of story telling rather than overly loquacious villians.

Okay, I liked Spider Woman's Daughter. Maybe not as much as most of Tony Hillerman's books. But, it's been a long time since I read one of those and not all of his books were equally good.

01 May 2015

Revisiting a long-admired author

Long ago, just after Bill Clinton had been elected president, he called Walter Mosley one of his favorite authors.

I remember thinking, "Walter who?" Then I went out and got a copy of Devil in a Blue Dress. I was hooked and read many more of his books. Then Mosley spoiled me in 1997 by writing Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned. It was so good, I nearly stopped reading Mosely's books. He's written over 30 books since '97. I've probably read three or four.

Half Price Books had a Mosley book on the shelf for $5.00. That's less than the cost of a paperback these days. I went for it. The book is All I Did Was Shoot My Man, A Leonid McGill Mystery.

The book jacket touts this as "a tale about what it means to be a family." Family has been a vital part of all the Mosely books I've read and Leonid McGill's family is diverse, troubled, and loosely bound. The woman who hires him, a private detective, to answer some old questions is part of a family that includes her late husband, the man she may have shot.

Like the other Mosley main characters I've read about, McGill is nearly overwhelmed by the events and troubles his family gets involved in. It's difficult for me to imagine how this guy functions from day to day. Somehow, in Mosley's story telling, McGill does function and survive, although not always happily.

My imagination may not be adequate to understand everything in the story. After all, I'm an old white guy from small town Minnesota. Mosley could pull the wool over my eyes without half trying as he writes about New York City and the former small time "fixer" that McGill is. But somehow I trust Mosley's perceptions and story telling. This was a good story well told. Check it out at a library near you (or ask for my copy).

08 March 2015

Ignore this

Seriously, ignore this. Not the book. Ignore my review.

The book is Reginald Hill's The Woodcutter.
It's been so long since I read it, I have only the vaguest memories of the story. I read the reviews and still don't recall much of the plot.

I remember enough to be convinced that I read it. I can't even remember where the recommendation came from. I must have had one because I bought the book at Half Price Books. It must have been on a list I had. Where did that list come from?

If I finished this 500-page tome, it must have been readable. Was it great? I don't know. I think I'll go with Marilyn Stasio's comment (see below) that it's a grand fairy tale. Heroic figure who rises from
obscurity, achieves three major quests, wins the hand of the princess, fathers a wonderful daughter, loses everything (including an eye), sits for years in prison, and then has the opportunity for revenge... 

If you read it, or have read it, please add to this. Maybe I'll not put it in the box for the used book sale and re-read it if you think it's worth it.

Another solution to a "used up" character

Henning Mankell has written nearly a dozen crime novels featuring Swedish detective Kurt Wallander. Wallander fits the stereotype of crime novel detectives. But Mankell added some spark that made his character stand out.

In The Troubled Man, Mankell announces the end of Wallander's "public" life. "After that," Mankell writes, "there is nothing more. The story of Kurt Wallander is finished, once and for all."

But before that last line, before he is swallowed up by the shadow of forgetfulness, Wallander works to resolve one more mystery. This one involves the disappearance of his daughter's father-in-law-to-be. The older man had been a commander in the Swedish navy who had been involved in a bit of international intrigue involving a Russian submarine trapped in a Swedish fjord. Well, everyone assumed it was a Russian submarine and no one would talk about how or why it had escaped identification and capture.

Of course it's more complicated than that. The wife of the commander also disappeared. Long ago, she had been a refugee from East Germany. Or, at least everyone thought she was a refugee. Had she been a spy? Was there a larger meaning to the papers found on her body? And how does this affect Wallander's daughter and new granddaughter?

Oh, and was this somehow related to the murder of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986?

Mankell adds so many distant and political aspects to the mix, that it's hard to imagine Wallander finding any firm answers. Probably only Stieg Larsson's Lisbeth Salander could have figured it all out and played vigilante to punish the evil doers.

Mankell is a master at story telling and character creation. He's also a master at putting one character out to pasture. I don't think I've read all the Wallander novels, though I've seen quite a few television versions. I might have to go through plot summaries and find the ones I haven't read yet.

07 March 2015

Long time coming

It's not just that it took me months to get around to writing about this. The first recommendation I had about this was a decade ago.

Ten years ago, Bird Loomis wrote about enjoying Ian Rankin's mysteries featuring John Rebus. Last summer I finally read an Ian Rankin book, but John Rebus was nowhere to be found in it. It seems the old guy had retired and a new main character, Malcolm Fox appeared.

Well, we can't have that. Conan Doyle had to bring Holmes back from the dead. Like Harry Bosch and Carl Morck, Rebus returns as a civilian to a cold case group (in Edinburgh it's called "Serious Crime Review"). The book is called, Standing in Another Man's Grave.

Rankin and his book

Rebus retired, but he has no life outside of detection or drinking or smoking. His chance to keep investigating is the only real possibility for him.

He gets a call from a woman whose daughter disappeared back in 1999. The woman says her daughter's disappearance must be related to the disappearance of several young women in the same vicinity in recent years. It's just the kind of case Rebus can't stay away from. Even though it brings him to the edge of a grave.

It also gets him in touch with Rankin's new character Malcolm Fox. Fox runs the complaints department and knows Rebus' reputation and hates it. Can he get rid of Rebus? Can Rebus drive around Scotland enough to wear out his vintage Saab? Will a gangster, on whose toes Rebus stepped, push Rebus into another man's grave? After the retirement age is raised, can Rebus get back on the force? Does it matter that the title is a mis-hearing of a song title, "Standing in Another Man's Rain"?

The story is well told. I enjoyed reading it. I think it's time for me to haunt Half Priced Books and look for some of Rankin's older books. What a fine prospect.

Traveling in another's mind

Louise Erdrich's little book, Books and Island in Ojibwe Country, didn't remind me of Dostoyevsky. It reminded me of Malcolm X's account of his pilgrimage to Mecca. It wasn't so much the enlightenment of the travel as the sense of sacredness and the repetition of ritual that made me think of the journey to a far away desert place.

She begins by describing the trees around her home in Minneapolis, all of which she's named. Then she travels north to a big lake.

Erdrich went by boat to islands in Lake of the Woods, that huge lake on the border between Canada and the US. There are hundreds of islands in the lake, many of them with rocky cliffs around their edges. And many of those cliffs are home to ancient paintings left by Ojibwe people. The creatures and the symbols in those paintings are still familiar to many people in the ancient Ojibwe homeland.

Copper Thunderbird, also known as Norval Morrisseau, was an Ojibwe artist whose works were based on the cliff paintings. They are marvels of color and shape, but they speak of the Ojibwe past and magic.
Mishipzheu on a cliff face
Morriseau's drawing

The bench, a featured facility
After reflecting on the ancient images, Erdrich meets a friend to begin a retreat at Ernest Olberholtzer's old home on Rainy Lake. There, she reflects on books and paintings and writing and perserving identity and the past. Oh, and on birds as well.

Throughout the journey, Erdrich's  infant daughter is her companion. Her daughter is an active and living connection with the future. Caring for her makes time for reflections of the past to project into her future.

And then Erdrich returns to her home near, you should have guessed, Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis. That's when she discovers that some of her precious trees, including the last elm have been blown down by a huge storm.

It's a book about nothing but life. And a journey to sacred places and times remembered and foreseen. It was a great pleasure to read it. Go for it.

No procrastination, this time

It's been over 40 years since I read any Dostoyevsky, but I had flashbacks last night while reading Karin Fossum's Bad Intentions. Someone at NPR said a Fossum mystery is "equal parts whodunit, heart-thumper and creep show." Fossum says they are “small, quiet stories.”

Well, Bad Intentions may be small (just over 200 pages) but it's not quiet. It is creepy. It's really not a mystery, and her main detective, Inspector Sejer, plays a very minor role in the plot. But it was, for me, a "heart-thumper." Two of the main characters were guilt-ridden, Dostoyevsky-like characters. A third was a Dostoyevsky-like manipulator, who evaded his own guilty feelings by attributing them to "lesser men."

The story revolves around the death of a man after a drinking party. Three friends who were involved in hiding the body, if not directly in the man's death, try to find ways of living with their memories. One of them ends up in a mental hospital, another in a quest to stay as high as possible for as along as possible. The third friend tries to find ways to get his buddies to carry his guilt as well as their own. Two of the friends are obviously in danger and my fear for them kept me reading as much as Fossum's skill in telling the story and probing the minds of the three main characters.

I was struck by Barry Forshaw's comment in his review of Bad Intentions in The Independent (UK). He described a mystery writer's conference where everyone was having a good time with "shop talk." Then Karin Fossum spoke: "Fossum... was having none of the brandy-induced good humour that had preceded her, and her truly terrifying description of a real-life child murder was delivered point blank to a suddenly sober audience. People shifted uneasily in their seats, but it was a salutary reminder that crime – however pleasurable on the page – has grim consequences in the non-literary world." It's a connection that even the graphic visuals of television's medical examiners don't often make for viewers.

If you're looking for a short narrative story about human frailty, this might be a book to go to. If you need your stereotypes of Norway adjusted, this might be a place to begin. If you want a deep exploration of guilt, go to Dostoyevsky. Just remember that Dostoyevsky's books are really long.

04 March 2015

Better late than never?

Once again, I have procrastinated about writing things about books I've read. The books have piled up on my desk and my dresser. Why, oh why?

I have no answer.

Diversion: The last I read of Maisie Dobbs, Jacqueline Winspear's hero, she had closed her private investigator's business and headed for India. It was a good move, because the character and the story lines had become rather stale. In the last two years, Winspear wrote a novel about life during World War I, and has another Maisie Dobbs mystery coming out in July. The new novel is set in Gibraltar, which might help revive the franchise.

Long running series (common to mystery writers) based on one or two primary characters, face the risk of repetition, especially if the characters are portrayed in consistent ways. Louise Penny faced that problem with her Armand Gamache novels set in the tiny village of Three Pines, Quebec. She has dealt with it by changing the status of her main character and having him retire to the little village and do some private sleuthing for one of his new neighbors.

Louise Penny has written a series of books (10 so far) about Quebec Detective Inspector Armand Gamache. Somehow he's investigated nearly a dozen major crimes in the tiny (Lake Wobegon-sized) village of Three Pines. That tiny village not only seemed to be a magnet for crime, but also for an incredible variety of interesting people (equally unlikely events in my experience). But those characteristics are what made Penny's stories so interesting. The new book is The Long Way Home.

In the book that preceded The Long Way Home, the great detective cracked a major corruption case that involved the highest levels of the Quebec police force. Then he retired to the tiny village of Three Pines that he'd come to know so well, thus increasing the variety and number of interesting people in the village.

Painter Clara Morrow's husband Peter, also a painter, went missing. The two of them had had a sort of competition as artists, and Clara had won more fame and fortune. Had Peter ceded the stage to his successful wife, had he gone off in search of a new muse, or had he given up on living? Who better to help locate the missing man than a nearby, retired police inspector? Peter's trail is obscure and convoluted.

The retired DI has to deal with the remnants of an artistic commune from the '60s. Surrounding the ruins of the commune are rumors of murders (bring in the cadaver dogs) and plagiarism (check in with a gallery owner in Montreal). Somehow, Peter was linked to the commune in the past. Was his disappearance linked to a reconnection with its notorious former leader? Oh, yes, asbestos too. Deadly asbestos. And a sad, "O. Henry" ending for the loving couple, Clara and Peter.

Well done, Louise Penny. You found a way to extend the series of Gamache novels.

16 October 2014

Familiar author, new story

I have four books sitting next to my desk that I've read and haven't written about. All of them were written by authors whose earlier books I'm familiar with. All of them were at least good.

Should I do more than make a list of them?

Well, of course.

The top of the pile is The Spider's Web by Margaret Coel. Coel writes about murders on Wind River Reservation in north-central Wyoming. We drove through the area a year ago. It's full of deceptively big mountains, beautiful green valleys, and desolate-looking prairies.

Coel's main characters are the Boston priest assigned to the reservation parish as a way to help the recovering alcoholic, the Arapaho attorney who returned to the rez after law school, and local and reservation lawmen.

This plot revolves around the murder of a young Arapaho who seemed to be turning his life around and an outsider who identified herself as his girlfriend. And there are other mysterious characters who haunt and threaten the main characters and other locals near the parish church and Riverton, the town in the southeast corner of the rez.

St. Stephen's parish (the model for Coel's church)
People go to and from Jackson, Wyoming in the story, but it's a three-hour drive through Dubois. Of course, in the wide west, a three hour drive is a short jaunt. I knew people in Wyoming who drove 75 miles to the grocery store and 75 miles back.

Coel writes well. She treats the landscape almost like Hillerman did. Her characters are almost as complete as Hillerman's were. Her plots are as complex as Hillerman's were. I was a big fan of Tony Hillerman, so to say that Coel is almost as good as Hillerman is high praise.

I liked The Spider's Web. If you haven't read any of her books before, I think you ought to go back to one of her earlier books to get a taste of what she does. One of her early books really strayed near frustrated romance (focused on the priest and the attorney), but she hasn't repeated that. If you like what you read, go to the library or a Half Price Books store and read away.

Now I have three books on the pile next to my desk. Back to reading.

03 September 2014


A few years ago, I invented an Improbability Award for books whose plots contained unlikely or wishful events. My inspiration for this was the spaceship Douglas Adams created in The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The spaceship, called the Heart of Gold is powered by the infinite improbability drive, which is governed by the Browian motion in a cup of hot tea. The absurdity of the whole idea startled and amused me. Other authors have startled and amused me with highly improbable events and circumstances to power their stories.

I think I have to hand out an Improbability Award in the nth degree to Steve Hamilton for The Lock Artist.

Adams' Heart of Gold

This book was on my "to read" list and I have no idea how it got there. It was an Edgar Award winner. It is well written, however, Hamilton often seems intent on slowing down the plot in order to describe everything he can imagine. I skipped and scanned through many paragraphs. If I later discovered I'd missed something important, I went back and skimmed more carefully. But that happened only rarely.

But the whole story and all the plot lines in the story are solidly based on improbables. The main character survives a tragedy that kills his family. He is left mute because of the experience. So, it's ironic that the whole book is told by that character in the first person. Hamilton does that part well.

The main character becomes a professional safe cracker by the time he's 17 years old. Even though he's a social outcast in school, he wins the love of a nearby school's most beautiful. Several people he "works" with on major thefts are killed, but he's left unharmed. His uncle gives him a motorcycle. Without practice or training (or a license), he speeds across the country a few times without accident or traffic ticket. On probation for his first theft, he's assigned a restorative justice project. The guy he is to work for is in a tight spot with some gangsters who lent him money. That leads to more safe cracking work. Later, one of the cops who "knows" our hero, saves him just before another of his partners in crime is about to blow his head off. And of course, it all ends happily ever after.

Hold it. Was I reading a mystery, a coming of age story, or a romance?

If you can deal with the unlikely circumstances and sequences of events, you might well enjoy reading The Lock Artist.

If you read it or another book by Steve Hamilton, write. Tell this little bit of the world what you thought of it.