22 February 2009

Radicals in high places

There are times when I seem to have no impulse control. It often happens in bookstores. I was only passing time. Waiting for someone else to do something. The specifics are lost in a maze of trivia. But the book I bought while I intended to be "just waiting" is very much on my mind. Of course, I only finished reading it half an hour ago.

When I saw Laurie R. King's Touchstone on the shelf in paperback I was lost. Since I read Beekeeper's Apprentice back in 2001, I've been a sucker for her books. It doesn't seem to matter whether she's writing about Sherlock Holmes' replacement for dear old Dr. Watson, or the San Francisco detective, or the cult busting undercover agent, or an innocents' underground railroad, I've liked her books.

I was just grateful that the book had made it to paperback before I found it. I'm sure that saved me more than a dozen dollars. (Even so, a dozen dollars for the paperback makes me appreciate the 50¢ paperbacks of my youth.)

Touchstone is a thriller set in mid-1920s England. An undercover FBI agent is paired with a British WWI veteran with PSTD. The veteran's sister is paired with Lady Hurleigh as progressive social activists. The veteran is also Lady Hurleigh's former suitor. The suit was ended by terrible, mostly psychological wounds the soldier suffered on a French battlefield. Lady Hurleigh is also paired with her current lover, a radical politician striving for legitimacy and political power. Lurking behind it all is a shadowy, semi-official intelligence agent who is planning to make Britain safe from reds and unrest, whether Britain wants that safety or not.

King tells the story quite slowly at first. It is a 550-page book. I slogged through the first half of the book. It could have used some energy and action. But the last third of the book makes up for the slowly-building tension. I had difficulty putting the book down while I read the last 100 pages.

I'd advise you to skim through the first half, but you'd might miss key elements that come into play later. You could probably live without them, but the ending does tie up all the loose ends -- well almost all. There could be a sequel, but it might be a romance novel.

Can you tell I liked this one? King has once again written a book I really like. She offers a believable picture of upper class English life and a plausible image of anti-Communist politics in J. Edgar's FBI and the infant MI5 of the 1920s.

I recommend it. Maybe this is the first recommendation for summer reading.

06 February 2009

Shanghai Mystery

A few weeks ago, Chip Hauss mentioned that he and his wife were reading their ways through a series of mystery novels by Qui Xiaolong, and that they liked the books.

Qui Xiaolong [right] teaches Chinese literature at Washington University in St. Louis. He was born in Shanghai and has lived in the US since 1989. I'd guess he was a student here in June of '89 who chose not to return to China after the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and massacre.

When I couldn't find any of his books at any of the local libraries, I ordered his first novel, Death of a Red Heroine from Amazon.com (not to be confused with Minneapolis' Amazon Book Store).

I liked it.

It's an ambitious book for a murder mystery (well, actually, it's a police procedural if you want to be picky) -- over 450 pages long; set in Shanghai (familiar to the author, but an alien world to me); full of political and cultural references (that gave me new insights into the politics and society of China); featuring a self-observant protagonist who finds himself in a moral dilemma; and including a complex plot that is revealed bit by appropriate bit.

I suppose it's natural for such a long, involved story, but I did nearly lose interest a couple times along the way. But as I finished the book, I appreciated the changes of pace in the story telling.

The pictures of life in China are not pretty -- although Qiu manages to express pride in his homeland and describe nobility in the Chinese people, in spite of their poverty and hardships.

The main character, Chen, was a scholar of literature who has been assigned to be a cop. He's risen to the rank of Chief Inspector, just high enough in the system to rub elbows with Communist Party politics in serious ways. As Qui portrays it, life at that level is lot like life in a junior high school run by the popular and muscular students. Ugh!

Oh, and it's a romance. Chen has a complicated relationship with a married "girlfriend" and a romance he abandoned in Beijing for political reasons. (That romance plays a larger and larger role as the plot proceeds.)

This is not just a story about finding evidence to solve a murder. It's also a story of the political education of Chief Inspector Chen, and it's the story of how Chen's moral dilemmas complicate his search for parallels with classic poets and the politics he learned in school.

I didn't just like this book. I liked it a lot.

If you read it, let us know what you think.