29 October 2010

Another book I didn't really read

Masterpiece Mystery recently featured three stories featuring Kurt Wallander, the repressed and obsessive Swedish detective created by Henning Mankell. The Wallander mysteries are intriguing and Wallander as a character is too. I keep expecting him to break out and become a real person. Maybe I shouldn't.

I picked up Depths by Mankell at the Northfield library. I'd forgotten that Mankell has written things besides the Wallander mysteries. I didn't look too closely at the book. I should have.

The back of the book jacket might have given me a hint. There's a quote from a Swedish newspaper review: "Mankell's most ambitious literary work so far." For me, that kind of response is a warning.

Depths is not a mystery and Wallander is not a character.

It's the tale of a troubled and obsessive Swedish naval officer set in 1914 as a world war is about to begin. I can't critique much about this book, because I only read about a third of it. It's constructed with little chapters of one to a dozen paragraphs each. The book jacket biography says Mankell has written many plays. The tiny chapters are like tiny scenes from a movie. Or maybe they're like individual frames in one of those antique things called films. Each of those frames is a still picture. When you run them through a projector, you get the simulation of movement.

Practically nothing happens in most of the scenes in Depths. I kept reading expecting the scenes to add up to something. I don't understand the arithmetic of the book. Even when it seemed that something had happened, I couldn't understand what was going on. (Reminded me of calculus in fact.)

I got tired of the main character rowing off into the fog to stalk a woman who lived a solitary life on an island off the Swedish coast. She was as as helpless and hopeless as he was, and nothing made much sense. Maybe if I was Swedish and not American I'd understand more. (Depths was a best seller in Sweden.) Maybe if I could better recognize my own helplessnesses. It's really not worth the effort for me. I think it should have been a short story (or as Paul Binding suggested in his review - link below - a tragic folk ballad).

After struggling through about a third of the book (maybe only a quarter), I skipped to the end and read the last couple scenes. Evidently things had happened and there was an ending with cosmic justice (I guess). But if it took 400 pages to get there, I'm glad I didn't read all those pages to find out. Next time I'll make sure I'm checking out one of the Wallander books.

Have you read any of Mankell's books? Have you read Depths? How have you responded? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought.

14 October 2010

First romance, now fantasy

Taking Bird Loomis' advice, I picked up a book by Thomas Perry. And then another and another. I liked them. One of the things I liked was that the characters were new to me in each book. There are times when it's a treat to follow characters through several novels. (See Tony Hillerman, Dana Stabenow, and Jacqueline Winspear.) But the novelty in Perry's books was refreshing.

I did notice in the dust jacket bios, that Perry was identified as the author of the Jane Whitefield novels. I was curious enough to look for one the last time I was in the Northfield library (celebrating the centennial of its Carnegie building). I picked out the oldest Jane Whitefield novel I could find and checked out Dance for the Dead, published in '96.

The book starts out like gangbusters. The first two chapters are great short stories. I was ready to read a series of short stories with little ligaments holding them together into a "novel." Turns out that the rest of the book is woven around those stories to create the novel. There are other short stories, but by the time I got involved in the book, I wasn't looking for them anymore.

This novel, like most of the other Perry novels, is a fantasy. Jane Whitefield is a magician, a superwoman, and smarter than any of the other bears. She's a Seneca woman from western New York who helps people disappear when they need to hide from bad people. It's a dangerous occupation, but she's the expert. Like Sherlock Holmes, she has people who help her in small, but essential ways. She always has enough money and another identity with documentation (even ones she can share with her clients). She always knows people she can go to. They're always home. She always wins the fights. She always is the survivor. No villain that Perry can invent can outwit her for long. She's heartless with the bad guys and motherly with victims. She probably does everything except shepherd people into heaven. The ones she sees out of this world are obviously going elsewhere.

I had to put on hold my desires for believability. There's practically nothing believable in the book. The action scenes are well done and suspenseful, as long as you forget that Jane Whitefield is coming out on top a the end. The plot is simple, but the telling is complex. That may be why I liked reading it.

Have you rad Dance for the Dead? Have you read any of the other Jane Whitefield novels? What did you think of them? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought.

07 October 2010


I've read several of Jacqueline Winspear's novels and really liked the atmosphere she creates. The novels are set in London during the early 1930s with World War I and the depression important for context. Well, not the depression so much, but the post-war experience of Winspear's main character, Maisie Dobbs, is vital. There are regular references to the depression, but Dobbs and her assistant are mostly observers. Dobbs is a private investigator and people wealthy enough to hire her haven't been hurt by the economic disaster very much. So, Maisy Dobbs and Billy Beale are gainfully employed.

It's Winspear's use of language and attention to detail that create the atmosphere of the 1930s. I can't swear that it's the 1930s atmosphere she creates, but it's definitely not a late 20th or early 21st century atmosphere. Words, phrases, and bits of material culture all contribute to a sense of another time. A romantic re-imagining of a time long past. (Maisie would have been about the same age as my grandparents.)

One of the reasons I have kept coming back to read more of Winspear's books is that they haven't strayed into romance novel territory. The stories focus on a mystery and the steps Maisie and Billy take to uncover the hidden facts. Maisie is a young, single woman and you might expect romance to be in the cards. But Winspear has created a woman who was a front-line nurse in France during World War I. She returned with traumatic stresses. The young doctor she loved and served with also came back from the war, but he was damaged much more severely. A head injury left him an invalid in a hospital for a dozen years after the war. Romance was on hold for Maisie.

But, a book or so ago, the injured doctor died. Maisie had a date or two and a serious suitor whom she turned down. In this book, The Mapping of Love and Death, romance blossoms.

But the romance is not just about Maisie and a new suitor or idealized memories of another time. Maisie is trying to find out what happened to a young American, a volunteer in the British forces during the war who went missing. In 1932, his body was found in France and, with it, a packet of love letters from an unnamed British nurse. The American parents want to identify the woman and learn more about their son's last days. (Of course it's more complicated than that because the post-mortem on the soldier's skeleton suggests he was murdered.) But there's the soldier's romance from 1915. There's a romantic image of a beautiful valley in California that the soldier visited before the war. There's an obvious romance still going on between the grieving American parents. There's are filial relationships between Maisie and her father and between Maisie and her dying mentor. And more. There is romance of one kind or another throughout the book. So, when Maisie is approached by a new suitor and she accepts his suit, it's not out of place. It does make me wonder how Maisie will continue her career if she marries into a proper upper-class family in London of the mid-1930s. Charity work, maybe. But investigative work for paying clients? I think not. The post-war, depression years were ones of great opportunity for women in Britain, but there were some things that proper women just didn't do.

In any case, in spite of all the romance and romance novel-like attributes in this book, I enjoyed it. It was a little day dream away from the fall of 2010 to an idealized time in early 20th century London. The characters are attractive. The story telling is well done and sometimes compelling. The most unbelievable thing is that Maisie's 1930 MG doesn't break down -- ever. The reputation those cars had doesn't support such reliability. Ah, escapism. Sometimes it's just the thing.

Have you escaped into a romantic past? How'd it go for you? Have you escaped into Jacqueline Winspear's London of 75+ years ago? What did you think of it? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

Jacqueline Winspear's web site
Jacqueline Winspear talks about the book

Perry's Death Benefits

Gary Sankary, wrote about Death Benefits by Thomas Perry. It's one I'd written about previously: More from a fox of an author.