13 July 2008

Stories about people

I read two books recently that I expected to be very different from one another. I was pleasantly surprised.

One of the problems with some mystery novels is that there's so much focus on the crime and the clues that the characters are neglected. Then there are books about people and the less deadly things in their lives in which there's too little story for me.

I thought about that some while reading One Step Behind by Henning Mankell [right]. This is a murder mystery involving a serial killer and a very involved plot. Mankell tells a good story this time. (Better than The Dogs of Riga that I read last fall.

This time too, the main character, detective Kurt Wallander, came across to me as a multi-dimensional character. I kept comparing the portrayal of Wallander to Tony Hillerman's portrayal of Joe Leaphorn. Over the course of all the books he appeared in, Leaphorn became a well-rounded, complex guy. One Step Behind is the sixth book about the Swedish detective, and Wallander is a pretty complete person. Certainly more complete than the guy I read about earlier. I may go back and read some of the in-between books.

The division of the world of literature into plot-driven books and character-driven books came into focus again when I read Mountain Time by Ivan Doig.

I had heard of Doig [right], but I had never read any of his books. He's gotten some awards and good reviews in high places. But somehow I was put off by a guy whose last name seems to be an onomatopoeia for a sound effect. Pardon my silly prejudice.

Then one of Nancy's high school friends recommended Doig's books. The endorsement was so heartfelt from someone who seems to be a thoughtful and utterly honest person, that I couldn't resist picking up one of Doig's books the next time I was in the Northfield library.

I was about a third of the way through Mountain Time when I remarked to a friend that this book was the opposite of the plot-driven mysteries. What I'd read in the beginning of the book was all about the people with practically no story.

Well, my early impression was wrong. There was a story to tell in Mountain Time. Telling it began slowly with limning the characters. And both the characters and the story telling are great in this book.

Without a series of books filled with improbable murders within which to flesh out the characters, Doig creates the sisters McCaskill and Lexa's POSSLQ, Mitch Rozier. And then he tells the story of a short period in their lives. That period involves resolution of parent-child relationships, sibling rivalries, love, distrust, jealousy, heartache, and nearly forced marches through beautiful mountain wilderness.

I really liked both of these books. And liked them for their similarities -- good story telling and interesting people. They're not perfect, but I don't think that's a reasonable expectation. There are some of those pesky improbabilities in both books. (I almost quite reading Mountain Time 30 pages from the end, but Doig earned a save.) Mankell and Doig persuaded me to read more of their books.

I recommend both One Step Behind and Mountain Time.

If you read either, write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

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