27 March 2011

The NYT reviewer speaketh

Marilyn Stasio, writing in The New York Times really likes the final Wallander novel by Henning Mankell, but she's not so enthusiastic about Jacqueline Winspear's new Maisie Dobbs mystery.

She does recommend a second Michael Robertson mystery about the brothers Heath, who rent an office for their law firm on London's Baker Street in exchange for answering letters sent to Sherlock Holmes. The first book was The Baker Street Letters. The new one is The Brothers of Baker Street. Hmmm...

26 March 2011

New Botswana mystery?

Gary Sankary asks, "Any word on when the next Detective Kubu book might come out?"

Great question and good reminder. He and I read A Carrion Death and liked it.

There was a hint about a new mystery featuring Detective Kubu in Botswana.

At the Detective Kubu web site, there are three books listed: A Carrion Death, The Second Death of Goodluck Tunubu, and Death of the Mantis. I guess we missed the invitation to the publication party.

I am planning to go to the library today. Anything else I should look for?

25 March 2011

More cold mystery from Iceland

So, when I returned books to the library, I scanned the "new fiction" shelves as usual. Just in case.

What I found was an oversized paperback of Arnaldur's latest, "Reykjavík Murder Mystery," Hypothermia. (It's a British publication with all the extra vowels.) It was pretty good and the last half was better than the first half.

In fact, I read to about page 60 and then went online to search this blog. Things just seemed very familiar, and I wasn't sure I had hadn't read this book already. But, no, I hadn't read Hypothermia. The main character, the setting (Iceland), the prose, and the pacing all seemed very familiar. In fact, a couple of the "cold cases" in this book were mentioned in earlier books.

When things seem that familiar and the pace of the story telling is a slow march, I have trouble getting enthusiastic about reading. I'd read a chapter and put the book down. The next day, I'd read another chapter. However, things picked up in the last half of the book.

Arnaldur's main character, Erlendur, is off on his own in this story. Things are slow at the Rekjavík cop shop. Erlendur is doing paperwork on a suicide and taking a last look at a couple 30-year old cold cases left over from early in his career. He's motivated, in part, because the father of a young man who went missing without a trace back then is dying.

Of course things get complicated. Details of the suicide don't add up. A guy retires from a career in Denmark and comes home to Iceland. Guess who he used to know. Erlendur is still haunted by the death of his little brother in a blizzard that almost killed both of them. His adult daughter is pushing him and his ex-wife to sit down and talk to each other (something they haven't done for 20 years). There are hints of ghosts and words of mediums.

Nearly all of that is in the second half of the book. And that's worth reading. I don't know how well the second half would stand up without introduction, but I'd guess you could skim the first 120 pages.

Now, there's the issue of counterparts. Dan Conrad noted that Charles Todd's Bess Crawford character (first created in 2009) is strikingly similar to Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs. The first Maisie Dobbs novel was published in 2003. Both women were nurses during World War I and both are independent women who get involved in solving mysteries in London after the war. I haven't gotten around to reading a Bess Crawford story yet, but here's another pair to draw to.

In 1991, Henning Mankell wrote the first Kurt Wallander novel. The Swedish detective has become incredibly well-known. The eleventh (and last) novel is about to come out. There have been television series produced in Sweden and Britain featuring Wallander. And there's a Swedish movie.

Wallander is a morose and phlegmatic man, whose wife left him and whose daughter worries him (in several senses of that verb). He's a passionate detective whose life is centered on finding the facts and explanations behind awful events. He lives in a neglected apartment and doesn't take care of himself.

Arnaldur's Erlandur first showed up in 1997. He's a morose detective, haunted by his past and anxious to explain tragedies and atrocities he confronts as an Icelandic detective. He abandonded his wife and two children long ago and has no clue about finding closure with those people. He lives in a neglected apartment and doesn't take very good care of himself. Books about Erlandur have been published in 26 countries, but none have been made in to television shows or movies. And Erlandur's putative apartment building is not a tourist destination like Kurt Wallander's.

Oh, and Arnaldur is Icelandic and doesn't use a family name. In the UK and the US, his books list him as Arnaldur Indriðason. I guess you can't be an author in the English-speaking world with only one name unless you were a 19th century short story writer or you've established yourself as a performer.

23 March 2011

Wait for it

Henning Mankell: the last Wallander
Forget the 40 plays, the Gaza flotilla arrest and the good work in Africa, what Henning Mankell is really famous for is the anguished detective he created 22 years ago. Now, with the final Wallander novel published this week, he tells Jon Henley why he is happy to say farewell

That's it then; the end. Twenty-two years after his first appearance and more than a decade since the one everybody - even his creator - had assumed would be his last, Inspector Kurt Wallander is working his last case.

The lugubrious, all too human but ultimately decent Swedish cop with the never-ending health problems and the terrible family life has sold 30m books in 45 different languages. This will be a sad day for a lot of people.

But not, on balance, for Henning Mankell. "Hand on heart," he says, "I thought I'd written his last adventure a long time ago. I don't even particularly like the man. We have certain things in common: we enjoy the same kind of music, we have a similarly conscientious approach to work. We wouldn't be enemies if we knew each other, but he wouldn't be a close friend. He's not someone I'd invite to dinner."...

"When you reach your 60s, you realise certain things," he says. "First, that you've lived well over half your life. Second, that you've pretty much made all your really big decisions; people very rarely change direction after that. And that leads you to look back. It's quite a . . . scary moment. So I asked: am I afraid of anything? I'm not afraid of dying. Nor of pain; we can control most pain these days. But there is one thing I'm scared of."

The thing Mankell is scared of is the reason this is Wallander's last case, so obviously I'm not going to tell you what it is. But thinking about that, and about the whole business of looking back on a life, and the idea of Wallander realising how all along he had been so resolutely non-political, then wondering what might happen if you confronted him with perhaps the biggest political scandal in Sweden's postwar history – thinking about all those things, Mankell says, "I began to think I really might have a story for Wallander. One last one."...

Crime writing, he came to realise, was not – as everyone had always told him – a literary genre that was invented by Poe or Hammett or even by Shakespeare. "It was around in classical drama," he says. "Even then, we were holding up a mirror to crime to observe society. Look at Medea: a woman murders her kids because she's jealous of her husband. If that's not a crime story, I don't know what is. And if the ancient Greeks had had a police force, you can be damn sure a detective inspector would have had a part in Medea. Society and its contradictions become clear when you write about crime."

Wallander took off almost instantly in Scandinavia, and nearly as fast in continental Europe. Britain, after a slower start, is catching up, carried on a wave of Scandi-crime enthusiasm that also features the likes of Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbø and Detective Sarah Lund. Wallander, though, retains a special appeal. What is it?

Partly, Mankell reckons, that he has never instrumentalised the detective. "Everything has always started from a big question, not from within Wallander," he says. "I did sometimes use him, of course. But I never held him between my fingers and looked at him and said: So, what can I find out with you today? I'd written three novels with him before I realised this was . . . like a cello, that I could play."

It's also important that Wallander is real. "No one could imagine James Bond stopping to inject himself with insulin," Mankell says. "That's because James Bond isn't real. So it's important that Wallander has diabetes, he's ill, his ideas progress, he has relationship problems. He changes, like we all do." It helps, too, that he thinks: "It's challenging to have him enter a room and think for 10 pages. But that's what I'm interested in – how he reads facts, traces, situations. Running around and shooting people is easy. And it isn't normal. Normally you solve problems by thinking."...

But now Wallander has reached the end of his road. Would Mankell, prolific and hugely successful for over 40 years, be happy for the rumpled detective to be his greatest legacy? He thinks. "I believe," he says, "the most important thing you do in your life, you may not even know what it is. It may be that one day you sat down on a bench to comfort someone who is crying. That could be the most important thing you ever do. So no, I would like to be thought of as a good, and quite generous man, who tried to make life a little better for others through what he did. And the things he wrote."...

18 March 2011


After slogging through the muck of the rough draft of Mark Twain's autobiography and then working, soporifically, through David Brin's universe of multiple sentients, I was worried I'd never get back to really enthusiastic reading. During the fortnights with Twain's book, I avoided reading. I did crossword puzzles. I played solitaire. I watched TV. I mindlessly surfed the web. I didn't want to go back to that book. During the fortnight with Brin, I kept falling asleep. I was on airplanes and I did come down with a blue ribbon of a head cold, but nonetheless, I kept falling asleep with the book in my hands.

Before I left for California, I not only checked out a book from the library, I also bought one from the best seller rack. Usually, reading a couple books in a week would be no big deal -- even when around little granddaughters. But I never got J. A. Jance's Trial by Fire out of the backpack during the trip.

Yesterday, after writing about my reading experiences with Twain and Brin, I got the book out and began reading.

Yipee! I can still read enthusiastically.

I know, it's mindless eye candy. Jance is an entertainer. She creates identifiable characters. She writes realistic dialogue so the characters talk to each other. Her characters aren't terribly deep, but the main ones were parts of earlier books, so there's background. They react in understandable ways within the realm of what's expected of people. She tells stories that are paced well. All these things are distinct contrasts to the books I most recently read.

I was half way through the book before I put it down last night. This afternoon I finished it. The good guys won again, with some suffering. The bad guys got their due. The scene was set for another story about some of the same characters. I enjoyed the experience. Just like I've enjoyed most of the other Jance books I've read. (She's written 40 so far -- a regular Mickey Spilllane. I don't know how many I've read.)

Trial by Fire considers the ways in which people react to fortune, good and bad. It's not profound, but it's got half a dozen telling anecdotes to relate. If I really wanted to think about it, I could ponder human nature, personality, and fate. But I only got as far as agreeing with the protagonist that I'm damn lucky and very grateful for it. Not everybody is as lucky and some who are aren't grateful. "So it goes," to quote another of my favorite authors.

Trial by Fire is an "Ali Reynolds Mystery." It's good entertainment. Try it out. Or try out something else by Jance. All the ones I've read have been worth the time I spent with them.

Or write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

17 March 2011

Not just in Botswana

If you search for Bess Crawford or Maisie Dobbs on this blog, you'll find recommendations for books about post-World War I women who were private detectives. You won't find a review of Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency because I only listened to an audio version of the series' first book. But women as private detectives does seem to be a theme (or a meme).

Be aware that this theme is not made up of whole cloth. Here's a 1911 ad from Chicago (posted at BoingBoing by Scott Edelman):

16 March 2011

Pioneers? Us?

My blogger friend Sank made of list of his 10 best for 2010. He recommended Death Benefits by Thomas Perry. It was a book I liked. Sank also like the Nick Adams stories by Hemingway and Ken Follett's World Without End. I like things those authors have written, too.

He recommended Sundiver by David Brin. He liked the themes of rebellion and adaptability and acceptance.

When I recently flew to California, I took along the Northfield Library's copy of Sundiver.

I tried reading it on the flight to Denver, during my layover there, and on the flight to Oakland. So many characters, such confusion, so few events. I got some good naps on those flights.

While not playing with granddaughters in California, I tried reading the book before sleep. It did put me to sleep.

After I got home, I struggled to read the rest of the book. Somewhere around page 150 of a 340-page book some things began happening. By then I'd skimmed enough to be confused and unable to distinguish one character from another, except for a couple. I had trouble making sense of descriptions of settings and events. Besides, I no longer cared about any of the characters -- even the protagonist.

Interesting ideas, yes. Well written, no. Interesting technologies, yes. Enthralling plot, no.

Of course, that's just one guy's opinions. A guy who got suckered by a century-old dead guy.


It was more than 50 years ago when I first read the story about Tom Sawyer and the fence Aunt Polly tried to make him paint. My reaction then, and when I read Tom Sawyer to young David a few years ago, was that Hannibal, Missouri must have been full of dumb, gullible, backwoods boobs.

Then Mark Twain, 100 years dead, proved me to be a dumb, gullible, backwoods boob, too. He sold me a copy of his so-called autobiography.

I was excited to read Twain's autobiography, and he sold it well. I bought a copy during the week of its release. "Don't publish this until I've been dead for 100 years," he said. The purpose was to allow him to say what he really thought without earning the enmity of the people he wrote about.

Well, old guy, nobody cares about or even knows most of the people you wrote about. Even your good buddy General/President Grant is pretty much forgotten, except as a notorious drunk.

Twain might have begun doing an autobiography. Some of the opening chapters are about his family and the childhood he heard about, but was too young to remember. He quickly became bored with that. A few years later, he started again. The second time, he decided to write about what he was interested in and change topics whenever his interests change. Sometimes his interests waned in the middle of a story. Okay, most of the stories weren't interesting to start with.

Every once in awhile, Twain told a good one. In that way he resembled my blogger friend Sank. Twain would tell an amusing anecdote with some insightful commentary. Sank does it more often than Twain did. Those moments were why I kept reading (actually skimming). I kept at that skimming for over a month. Toward the end of the book, Twain goes on quite awhile about his daughter Susy, who died at age 24. It was touching and the man's pain was palpable. The book is 736 pages. Well, there are 276 pages of notes and index, but the few gems don't make the other 460 pages worth the effort. Twain needed an editor.

Oh, but there was a whole team of editors. Editors from the University of California. Instead of editing, they collected every little word Twain wrote with the note "autobiography" appended to it and put them all in this book. Well not all. They promise more volumes. Oh, goody.

I find myself in agreement with Garrison Keillor. He reviewed this book for the New York Times. If you want a more complete or informed consideration, read it. Skip the book.

Usually, I put a link here so you can easily buy a copy of the book. No link this time. Go the library, check out a collection of Twain's short stories and read those.