28 August 2007

Want to read along AND comment?

Bird Loomis, long time friend and contributor to Reading, teaches political science at the University of Kansas. He wrote about a new course he's teaching this semester. He's looking for people to respond to some of his thoughts before and after he takes them to the classroom.

I'll offer this space as a place for Bird's reflections. And you can take whatever space you want to use in the comments section to add your own 2 cents' worth. Or you can e-mail Bird directly. His address is in the syllabus below (although I disguised it a bit to avoid the spamming trolls on the Internet).

Here's what Bird wrote and the course syllabus:

I'm teaching a course on Politics and Literature this fall -- something that I've wanted to do for some time, but hve been thwarted by various other duties. Now I'm doing it. I've attached a syllabus. What I'd like to do is this: produce a running set of commentaries and reviews as I go through the course (all informed by the syllabus, to begin with). I'm finding that this is a different kind of course than those I have historically taught, and I'm doing a fair amount of reflecting on what I'm doing. So -- would you/readers be interested? I'm not sure what I'd say, or how much, but my guess is that I'd post pretty frequently. And I'd obviously like to have some response, though who knows.


POLS 503 Literature and Politics

Burdett Loomis
515 Blake Hall
Area Code SevenEightFive-864-9033
bloomis AT ku DOT edu

Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Truthiness is tearing apart our country, and I don't mean the argument over who came up with the word. I don't know whether it's a new thing, but it's certainly a current thing, in that it doesn't seem to matter what facts are. It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that's not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It's certainty. People love the president because he's certain of his choices as a leader, even if the facts that back him up don't seem to exist. It's the fact that he's certain that is very appealing to a certain section of the country. I really feel a dichotomy in the American populace. What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true?
Stephen Colbert

As a political scientist long fascinated by the actions and lives of politicians, I've always wanted to explore how fiction can add to our understanding of political life. Well, this is my initial plunge. I have used a bit of fiction in my Congress courses over the years, and probably will do the same in interest groups in the future. Scholars often infer or postulate motivations for politicians, yet it's tough to know what does move them toward action or belief. Novelists get around this problem by creating characters - by lying in essence to create the truth (or maybe a truth). To be sure, some politicians create their own novel-like narratives as justifications for public policy, but our focus here will be more on actual novelists than some presidents.

This course will approach the politics-literature connection through readings that emphasize American politics, broadly defined. We'll read a bunch of books, some short stories, and watch some films (and even a couple of television episodes). By the end, we should understand a bit more about politics and politicians, as well as appreciating how novelists choose the words for their narratives. We'll also read a play (The Best Man).

This is a political science, not a literature, course, but we'll focus on both the fiction and what political lessons we might learn. And since it's the maiden voyage for this course, it remains something of an experiment. If there are two major players in this course, they are Ward Just and Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. The latter is the archetypal American political novel as it addresses the core idea of power (and its ability to corrupt); we'll also watch the 1950 Oscar-wining film (not the 2006 Sean Penn monstrosity). In many ways, ATKM stands at the heart of the course. More pervasive, however, will be the writings of Ward Just, a first-class contemporary novelist who often examines the inner workings of the political class, from legislators to journalists to Foreign Service officers. No one writing over the past fifty years has a better ear for the nuance of politics, and the considerable personal costs that public figures often choose to pay.

The class will depend greatly on active discussion; you will need to do the reading and keep up through out the course. High levels of participation are expected.

  • Ward Just, 21 Stories or The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert: 21 Stories and Novellas
  • Ward Just, A Dangerous Friend
  • Robert Penn Warren, All the King's Men
  • Henry Adams, Democracy
  • Bud Norman, The Things That Are Caesar's
  • Billy Lee Brammer, The Gay Place
  • Gore Vidal, The Best Man
  • Jeffrey Frank, The Columnist

26 August 2007

Four-year-old reviews of J. A. Jance mysteries

When we returned from our wonderful jaunt to the UK, we began resuming some of our old routines. One bit of that routine was spending Labor Day weekends at the little cabin called Sidetrack. We had been away from it for over 5 weeks.

A result of my absence (since I do most of the "yard work") was that the patio was overgrown with little green and purple clover. Since we've decided that anything growing in the gravel of the patio was a weed, I set out to weed the patio.

On Saturday, I rubbed my eyes while weeding. My eyes did not like whatever plant juices were on my hands. Even after I rinsed out my swollen, red, and itchy eyes, I was uncomfortable and a bit worried. That was my excuse for sitting on the deck reading for the next 24 hours. (By the time I went home I was obviously on the mend.)

The book I picked up was one of the many around Sidetrack that await times like this. It was Skeleton Canyon by J. A. Jance. Nancy had read it and left it on one of the groaning Sidetrack bookshelves. (There are also a couple under-bed boxes full of books.)

I have now read several of Jance's books and liked them. I am glad I read this one too. This may be the best one for my money. It's sort of a Goldilocks book. The plot is neither simplistic nor overwrought. The pace of story telling is just right. There are some, but not too many side and back stories. The characters don't do stupid things, but they aren't passive. The ending contains one not quite believalbe "happy ever after" element, but I can ignore that with everything else so well done. I might also wish for a bit more Hillerman-like rhapsodizing about the natural setting of southern Arizona, but I just read some of that in Hillerman's last book.

J. A. Jance is a very successful mystery writer. Her petite Sheriff Joanna Brady is a well-known creation. Skeleton Canyon is about tragedy, revenge, self-denying sacrifice, arrogance, hubris, racism, smuggling, teenage romance, and police brutality. If you haven't read any of Jance's books, this may be one to start with. As always, your dissenting or concurring opinions are not only welcome here, they're needed.

After that experience, the next time I was at Sidetrack I picked up another Jance novel, Name Withheld. This is evidently part of a series of mysteries about a Seattle homicide detective named J. P. Beaumont. There were a dozen other mysteries listed next to the title page of this 1996 novel.

Name Withheld was a compelling book to read. The story is as well-paced and well-told as the story in Skeleton Canyon. I started to read it during a cool windy day at Little Blake Lake. Even though it got to be 11:00 PM, I didn't want to put it down. However, Nancy and David turned out the lights and were asleep. I finished it the morning of the first frost of the season. The plot was a nicely constructed package nefarious activity.

Maybe I was just bored by being confined by the weather. This was not as good as Skeleton Canyon and the characters weren't as well drawn. Nearly everything was plausible. Well, the fact that star of the show J. P. Beaumont was richer than Croeses and drove around in a Porsche worth several years' of a detective's salary was a little hard to accept. But if you can accept things like Perry Mason's winning streak, you can probably adjust to Beaumont's Porsche and penthouse. I think I've read enough J. A. Jance for awhile, but her books are worth a look or two.

Vigilantes and the slow pace of justice

Our friendly family book giver dropped off more books a couple weeks ago. One of them was J.A. Jance's Justice Denied. I took it along on the trip to take D back to Beloit. But since the trip required us to spend time with granddaughter Jaime, I didn't get much reading done until I got home.

I have enjoyed Jance's mysteries before, but I was in exactly the right mood for this one. Justice Denied takes place in the Seattle area and involves seemingly unrelated investigations by two people working on a special task force for the state attorney general. Those two people happen to be lovers. But the romance part of the book is minimal and actually makes the characters more realistic for me. It reminded me of some of Laurie R. King's San Francisco mysteries.

I appreciated the fact than none of the investigators or detectives in the story were lone wolves. They worked together. They talked to each other. No one went off on a heroic solo to save the world from nefarious bad guys. I rather liked all the major characters in this book. I don't know about your experiences, but that's rare for me.

I was taken aback mostly by the ease with which the principals could find relevant and useful information on the Internet. I know that law enforcement people have access to things us mortals don't, but multiplying the amount of information doesn't mean that it's easier to find what you want to know.

The story flows well. It's complex and the connections between the sub plots are reasonable. Conversations and internal dialogues supplement descriptions of events. For me, it would have been a great book to read on the deck at the lake. I just wasn't at the lake.

Try it out if you haven't read Jance's books. For me, this is one of her best.

19 August 2007

Maisie Dobbs mysteries

One of Nancy's friends recommended Jacqueline Winspear's series of four mystery novels featuring Maisie Dobbs as the primary character. Nancy got one from the Northfield Library and read it. Then she went back for the other three.

That, along with little comments from Nancy as she read the books, led me to pick up one of them on a quiet evening. I ended up reading two of the four: Pardonable Lies and Messenger of Truth.

Winspear invents commendably complex plots, but tells the stories in a plodding, detail-filled way. So, you should ask, "Why did you read all the way through two books?"

I read on because of the marvelous mood and setting that Winspear has created. The setting is London in 1930. Maisie Dobbs was a near frontline nurse in France during World War I (like Nancy's grandmother; that was a bit of a hook for Nancy). After the war, Maisie studied what we'd call forensic psychology and learned meditation from two important mentors. She worked as an investigative assistant for one of those men.

The war left Maisie's fiancee in a shell shocked catatonic stupor that we'd call extreme post traumatic stress disorder today. She "knew" that the world was dead to him, but her affections for the man he once was had persisted.

Maisie was a bit shell shocked herself by her wartime experiences and had a breakdown a decade after the war. As part of her recovery, she was casting off from her mentors, buying her own apartment, and establishing her own investigative consulting business. The depression is beginning to have terrible effects, but there were still people with money to hire others to find the graves of soldiers lost in The Great War or determine whether a brother's death had really been an accident.

Winspear's descriptions of London, southern England, and northern France are replete with details that drew me in as completely as any BBC Mystery movie. (And I would not be surprised to find these books translated into BBC films in the near future.)

The details are all there and Winspear does it all with words: from the dreadful fall London smogs that surrounded everyone as people lit their fires for warmth to shifting the claret red 1930 MG that Maisie drove; from the details about the death of a toddler from diphtheria to those about the clothing of an American who wanted to fit into London high society to those about an artist's retreat created from old railway carriages on a desolate beach in Dungeness.

I dabbled enough in archaeology to be fascinated by material culture and the understandings that come from studying artifacts and the details of their arrangements. Winspear is fascinated too. Plus, she adds sociological insights about post-World War I Britain, that, for example, offered more opportunities for women than Victorian England had.

Winspear grew up in London and Kent, but she's certainly not old enough to remember the late 1920s-early '30s. I suppose if you looked carefully, you could still find a 1930 MG or a coin-operated gas meter to describe, but she wrote these books after moving to the USA. She gives thanks in her books to her "Cheef Resurcher (who knows who he is)" who helps recreate Maisie Dobb's world. I'd say his role is vital.

These books are time travel experiences. There are plots and story lines, but they're almost unnecessary for me. On another dreary, cool afternoon like this one, I'll be tempted to sit down with another of Winspear's books and safely travel back to the London of 75-80 years ago. If it sounds like a tempting. trip, check your library or local bookstore for a copy of one of Jacqueline Winspear's books.

(And if you are curious about the strange and lonely beach at Dungeness, use the satellite photos at Yahoo or Google maps to look it up. It's an amazing sight.)

07 August 2007

Swedish mystery

Here's a continuation of the theme Dan Conrad and I discussed earlier: mystery novels from Scandanavia. This one's from Sweden and I found it in River City Books here in Northfield while I was shopping for birthday gifts for 2-year-old granddaughter Jaime. (I know, the mystery shelves are strange places to be looking for books for toddlers. Is there a rule against shopping for more than one thing at a time?)

This time the book is Sun Storm by Åsa Larsson [at left] who is a native of Kiruna, Sweden, an iron-mining town so far north in Sweden that Norway and Finland are probably visible from the highest nearby mountain (which is also the highest in Sweden). It's so far north that there's an astrophysics lab there that studies Martian climate. It's so far north that the aurora borealis is visible from the 1:00 PM sunset until the 10:00 AM sunrise.

All of that is to prepare you for the setting of Sun Storm. It's set in a mining town in the very northernmost part of Sweden called Kiruna. This place is so far north that Larsson's description of winter there makes Minnesota winter sound like warm vacation spot. On top of that the houses she describes don't seem to have central heating. And the cabin in the mountains -- the scene of a crucial event -- relies on snow drifts outside to seal the drafts.

Rebecka Martinsson, Stockholm tax attorney and Kiruna native (like author Larsson), gets drawn back to that northern town by the murder of a friend from her youth and the dead man's sister who is accused of the killing (unlike author Larsson). But there's more. The dead man was a central figure in the creation of a large Pentacostal church in that town of 20,000 on the glacier-swept landscape. It's a church that's grown wealthy from evangelism and the sales of books and videos of sermons. The killing and Martinsson's defense of her old friend threatens the church and the wealth of its movers and shakers.

There are powerful images here. Larsson is very good at descriptive writing. There's a complicated story and it's well told. Throughout the book I was sure I understood most of what was going on, but I had these nagging questions. Larsson answers most of them with dramatic flashbacks and conversations between old friends and acquaintances.

The ending is dramatic and suspensful. Larsson does action endings well too.

Oh, by the way, neither Martinsson nor her old chum are terribly attractive people. My favorite character in the book is not Martinsson, but a local detective, Anna-Maria Mella.

There are a couple things that don't fall together at the end, but they are not essential to this tale. I enjoyed reading this book. Larsson has a second book that's just been released in the US. I'm going to have to pester the library about loaning it to me.

I thought this was a good one. If you read it, let us know what you think.

05 August 2007

Yiddish Alaskans, Harry Potter, and an old Pulitzer

Dale wrote about the Kit Carson book, but he also added notes about two other books he's read recently. In response to his expressed intention to read Chabon's earlier, prize-winning book, I append my thoughts on it as an import from the old Reading web page.

Confused yet?

Here are Dale's comments on Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union , Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and my reactions to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay:

Dale wrote:

I read The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon.

He is a master of descriptive, innnovative phrasing, and his imagined world in which the Jewish people are not in control of Israel, but instead have their greatest population concentration on the southern border of Alaska is clever, believable, and intriguing.

His charactes are vivid, the story is a mulit-layered mystery, and I was genuinely sorry to come to the end. So much so, that I rushed out and bought The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, for which he won the pulitzer prize.

I got distracted from starting that, however, because I had to take a couple days and read the last of the Harry Potter series (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows).

I liked it, although I felt that Rowling relied a bit on caricatures of her previous characters, I was satisfied witht the finale and how she concluded the epic good vs evil struggle.

I suppose it reveals that we all have a basic need to escape, even though the magical world of her novel is filled with danger and turmoil, a fascination and, perhaps, a yearning for the power of magic and the guiding hand of destiny enables even a "medium aged guy" ( in the words of my 11 year old daughter) like me to lose himself in the wizarding world for awhile.

My 2003 reactions to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay:

Some time ago, someone asked in these pages about The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon, but said nothing else about it. I had an approach-avoidance reaction to what I heard about the book. I have to admit being somewhat curious at the time. There was quite a bit of publicity about it because it had just won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. I'd heard the story was about a couple movers and shakers in the comic book industry of the 1940s. Well -- I'm one of the few people in the world who has read the history of Mad Magazine. On the other hand, other things I read about the book weren't attractive. Don't ask me now what those things were. I don't remember. I only remember the feeling.

Then son Jim gave me the book for Christmas. Make that Christmas of 2001. It took me a year to get to the book and it's taken me 6 months to get to writing about it.

One reason it's taken so long is my confusion about the book.

What does it take to win a Pulitzer? And what does it take to get Daniel Mendelsohn to say in New York magazine that he's "not sure what the exact definition of a 'great American novel' is, but I'm pretty sure that Michael Chabon's sprawling, idiosyncratic, and wrenching new book is one..."?

Well, I still don't know. This novel contains several stories. I'm not sure they're connected except by the author's assertion that the same characters were involved. I guess I'm not a reader of literature. I need things laid out for me. There are stories about

    • a young Jewish escapee from the Holocaust
    • a creative and hard-driven young New Yorker
    • a tolerant and beautiful woman
    • suppressed sexuality yearning for expression
    • the internal dynamics of a comic book industry

If there are supposed to be connections between the stories I couldn't discern them. If you want to know which ones are about which characters, you'll have to read the book. Some of the stories are interesting. Others are not. I really don't know what holds them all together. If the critic for New York magazine isn't sure what a great American novel is, how can he be sure this is one? I really don't know what makes something a great American novel. And I know even less why this is a "great American novel." I kept reading hoping to get some clues.

Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times that this is "a big, ripe, excitingly imaginative novel... that echoes of Ragtime..." I read Ragtime long ago. My memory may not be as clear as Ms Maslin's but the only echo of Ragtime I sense is that the stories mostly take place in New York. I have fond memories of Ragtime. Maybe I should go back and reread that. I can imagine rereading Ragtime. I can't imagine rereading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

Anyone else have a reaction to the book? I'd like to hear from someone besides the New York critics and Pulitzer judges.

More about the Navajo

Dale Stahl has joined the online ReadingBlog. He often read interesting books and described them well when I published Reading. With my success in creating a mailing list for the digital version, he has jumped in quickly with this supplement to Navajo fiction.

Dale wrote:

I noticed the Hillerman discussion and thought I'd put in a plug for Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides.

It is a non-fiction work that tells the tale of Kit Carson and the clash between the US Government and the Navajo people. The importance of the landscape on Navajo culture and the four sacred mountains, as so elequently described by Hillerman, is made even more clear and described in vivid detail in this book. It is striking the degree to which a sense of place, the physical geography of the land influences the non-material culture of the Navajo people.

Further, the key figures involved in the Navajo long walk to the Bosque Redondo, the near destrcution of their culture, and the ultimate decision to return them to their homeland is a fascinating and heart rending read.

Carson is an extremely interesting figure as well, and deserving of his folk hero status, although the author pulls no punches when describing his fierce temper and violent acts, Carson clearly has a sense of justice and the well being of the natives in mind throughout his life.

04 August 2007

More Old Hillerman

While I'm at this, I can transfer another old entry from ReadingOnTheWeb to this blog.

Here's my account from 2002 of a summer spent reading several Tony Hillerman books:

There was indeed a new Tony Hillerman mystery in the works when he wrote his memoirs.

I picked it up this spring at River City Books. The bookstore is a joint project on mainstreet of Northfield's two colleges. Most of the off-campus bookstores in town sell used books. There was a bookstore here for years, but it closed when the owners moved away. I have no concept of the profitability of these little independent bookstores, but I hope this one stays around. Neither of the colleges will subsidize it long, so it'll be my source for books and certainly more convenient than finding a place on one of the campuses to park while patronizing those bookstores. [It's still here in 2007.]

The new book is The Wailing Wind, a novel that brings together two sad stories. The investigative action centers around a legendary New Mexico gold mine, two murders separated by many years, and a children's Halloween scare. Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, the familiar Navajo police officers from Hillerman's other New Mexico novels are active and in character. Bernadette Manuelito becomes a main character and more obviously a love interest for Jim Chee. (That's a bit of promise that there's more story to come. Just remember, the guy's in his late seventies.)

Some of the pieces of this mystery fall together too conveniently for Leaphorn and Chee, but in another section of the book Manuelito and Chee ingeniously answer one set of questions in different ways. It's a bit of the old master's plotting that helps make the book a pleasure.

As usual, in Hillerman's books, the familiar characters and landscape play a vital role. I really like these imaginary people. And sometimes I like Hillerman's descriptions of the beauty of the desert landscape more than I like the desert itself. When I'm in the desert, I'm often distracted by the unfamiliar and uncomfortable heat and sun to pay attention to the beauty of the landscape. (Is that a hint that I should spend more time in New Mexico?) While this novel doesn't measure up to my memories of Hillerman at his best (Thief of Time), I've never been disappointed with one of his books. He can count on me to be in the bookstore whenever he writes more.

As a footnote, I bought a used copy of Hillerman's Dancehall of the Dead in Yachats, Oregon while on vacation.

Dancehall... is one of the early Joe Leaphorn mysteries (before Hillerman lost the rights to use the Leaphorn character and before Hillerman bought the rights back from those clever lawyers). I really enjoyed rereading this book. Two things struck me as I compared this 1973 novel with the more recent ones.

Hillerman used to spend a lot more time describing the landscape and the weather. Most of the descriptions were paeans to the rugged beauty of the desert and mountain territory. I enjoyed them.

The plot of Dancehall... was a lot more complex than the plots of more recent novels. I don't know if that's a generalization or just a comparison. I guess I'm ready to read anew some of the other older Hillerman novels. And I highly recommend them to you.

A month after reading Dancehall of the Dead in Oregon, I read Hillerman's first mystery: The Blessing Way.

It was originally published in 1970, at least 15 years before I discovered the beauties of New Mexico and Hillerman's prose.

This first novel also includes a great deal more detail about the desert landscape and weather of the Navajo Nation. It also includes much more detail about Navajo culture than I remember from other books. And like Dancehall of the Dead, the plot is more complex than some of the later books.

What I had forgotten was how well Hillerman could write suspense and danger. The last sixty pages of The Blessing Way kept my heart thumping. After finishing, I remembered that there were a couple times that Hillerman kept me on the edge of my seat. I don't have a good enough memory to make meaningful comparisons between these first books and the most recent ones, but I find Hillerman's books real pleasures. I might have to read some more of them again.

A feminist book for all of us

I sent out the announcement that I'd reviewed a moderately interesting mystery last night. Today, Dan Conrad comes through with his reaction to what sounds like a much more meaningful experience. His praise for this book is extraordinary. It's now on my list of books I really must read. I bet Kris' book group and Nancy and her friends would be attracted to it as well.

Dan wrote:

Just last night I reluctantly came to the end of Hanna's Daughters by a Swedish writer, Marianne Fredriksson [at right].

One thought was "now, who could I really recommend this to?" Then I got your e-mail and thought, well, maybe Nancy or Kris, for example.

The novel tells the story of three women, a grandmother, a mother and a daughter.

They are not caught up in some international intrigue nor are they pursued by a serial killer. What they are caught up in is just getting on in life and trying to understand one another, and themselves, and the changing times (and their changing selves)--and the effect they have on one another, the mystery of love and the pull of obligation.

When I finished, I just sat there for a long time feeling I had not just read an absorbing story, not just come to know three characters well and from the inside, but had a deeper understanding of humanness itself. It may have helped that it takes place in Sweden and that reading about the grandmother gave me some insight into my own great grandmother who was born in Sweden in 1827 into a life of hardship until she came to America in 1893, old and tired, but not broken.

But then, the novel has also been popular in places like Germany, Korea, Israel, etc. so it hits, I think, on more universal themes. One of which the author mentions in an afterward in saying one of her goals was to "investigate why women in our western society aren't able to help themselves to the rights they have received."

Maybe a lot of us, male and female, get less from life than we could, or that we deserve.

Anyway, just passing this on. Not for everyone, no doubt, but for me it is one of the more absorbing and thought-provoking--and wise--books I've read in some time.

03 August 2007

A P. D. James mystery

One day when meeting Jo after lunch, I started reading a P. D. James [at right below] mystery from the library at Village on the Cannon. It took awhile, but I read little bits and pieces, and by about half way through, I wanted to finish it.

The book was Original Sin. (That's a clue, folks, but one of the few you'll get while reading the book. And if you insist on taking it theologically, the clue won't help much.)

Adam Dalgleish [Roy Marsden as Dalgleish below left] is James' star, but while he's obviously the brains of the outfit, he's not on stage as much as his assistants. As a reviewer at the Bastulli Mystery Library says, "...unlike most series, James seems to use her main character just for the needs of the story and not vice versa."

First assistant Kate Miskin and second assistant Daniel Aaron do a lot of the leg work and interviewing, although the master steps in at crucial moments to get the truth from recalcitrant withnesses, resolve conflicts of poorly-skilled parents, or figure out the crucial meaning of ambiguous clues.

James writes extended internal dialogues (even for minor, irrelevant characters) and detailed descriptions of how people travel around London. There are some lectures about the history and character of London's Thames those who live near it. I tried to compare these long-winded descriptions to the romantic word pictures that Tony Hillerman paints of the desert, but I just never got beyond long-winded. Maybe if I was a Londoner who shared James' feelings that living within sight of the Thames in London was epitome of residential achievement, I would have had more patience.

Okay, the story is moderately interesting and complex. A small, 200-year-old publishing company is the center of a suicide and two suspicious deaths that might have been murders.

Most of the characters are well-drawn and the internal monologues do make most of them more than cut outs on a stage.

It's a mystery that you won't figure out until the very end, but that's partly because there is so much detail and so many clues and so many gaps in the details. Perhaps that realistic, but if you enjoy saying "Aha!" about two-thirds of the way through a mystery, you won't get that until the last couple action-pacted chapters.

I don't know whether this is a recommendation or a warning. You'll have to decide for yourself.

Not long after I wrote this, Dan Conrad e-mailed this question. If you have an answer, add it as a comment below or send it to me using this link:

"I read Original Sin several years ago after someone told me P.D. James was absolutely incomparable as a mystery writer. I thought it was pretty good, but not more than that. I next tried Devices and Desires and had the same reaction, and haven't bothered to read another. Is there someone out there who can say: 'these are the one or two best P.D. James novels?' I still think I might be missing something."

Write. Tell a little bit of the world what you think.