22 August 2012

Once again, Maisie Dobbs

The last couple times I read a Maisie Dobbs novel by Jacqueline Winspear, I almost despaired of reading another really good one. One of the books I read was more a romance novel than a mystery. The other, unexpectedly, neglected lots of detail and reality. It's been a year, and I was tempted by nostalgia and picked up Elegy for Eddie from the new books shelf at the library.

I'm glad I did.

There is a noticeable lack of historical detail in this new book compared to the earlier ones. Maybe that's because the author has moved from London to Los Angeles. But, it might just seem that way because the coin-operated gas fire places and 1930's fashions are no longer such novelties to me. However, I complained about the reliability of Maisie Dobbs' 1930 MG. The reputation of those cars is/was that they practically required a ride-along mechanic or a driver skilled in small repairs. But until this book, Maisie never experienced a break down. This time the car broke down while parked behind the city home of her lover, who had to call in a mechanic to get it running again.

I really was unhappy with the romance of The Mapping of Love and Death. Well, this time Maisie's romantic relationship is still around, but Maisie is obviously doing some inner work to come to terms with her desires for independence, her desires for the man in her life, and the contradictions between her working class background and her elevation to high society. It wasn't just her smarts and skills, but the generosity of her former employer and her late mentor that brought her wealth and position. Part of the work Maisie has to do is figure out how to best use her good fortune to help people around her without becoming a benevolent dictator.

And the story around which this is told fits with Maisie's inner struggles. Working class people and newly rich industrialists are involved. A young man, Eddie, who we might now call an autistic savant dies in what appears to be an industrial accident. However, there are suspicions that the accident might have been part of the factory owner's struggle to keep unions out of his plant. Eddie had a way with horses and the costermoners (fruit and vegetable sellers who made the rounds of London neighborhoods) regularly called on him to deal with sickly and unruly horses. Since Maisie's dad was once a constermonger, a local group calls on Maisie to sort out the questions surrounding Eddie's death.

Ah, but the resistance to unionization might not be the real intrigue. Eddie, the savant, was also able to sketch things in great detail from seemingly casual glances. (See the story about Stephen Wiltshire.) What did Eddie see? And was all this connected to the death of a crusading journalist who bought Eddie drinks once in awhile? And why did the bully who was suspected in Eddie's death also kill himself? Or did he? And was the reporter's death an accident?

I thought it was a well-written, complex mystery. I also enjoyed the fact that Maisie Dobbs once again had an inner life that was interesting. In earlier books she struggled with PTSD from her years as a front line nurse in France. Now, she was working through more fortunate, but still difficult, changes in her life.

I'm glad I didn't let my disappointments of a couple earlier novels discourage me. If you're looking to begin reading about Maisie Dobbs, I do recommend starting with the earlier books. And you have my permission to skip the couple that preceeded Elegy for Eddie. (See the Wikipedia entry for Jacqueline Winspear to see the books and publications dates.)

Have you read Elegy for Eddie or another of Winspear's books? How did you react?

 Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought.

Jacqueline Winspear, speaks at Politics & Prose
Bookstore about Elegy for Eddie and writing

13 August 2012

Back to the Peak District

I picked up another of Stephen Booth's book at the Northfield Library. I'm glad I did.

The Dead Place is set, like Booth's other mysteries, in northern England's Peak District. Detective Constable Ben Cooper and Detective Sergeant Diane Fry are, once again, primary characters. The highland moors and the frenemies status of the cops are important features in the plots and the progression of the stories.

Part of the Dark Peak District
Like the Navajo Nation in Tony Hillerman's masterful books, the northern, Dark Peak District is an overwhelming presence in Booth's stories. There are many isolated places and people, but there are many people around. That seems to me a necessity for a long series of books. Similarly, the people who live in the rural Peak District are "outsiders," like the Navajo. DC Cooper is a native and understands a lot about the locals and their culture, much like Navajo cops Leaphorn and Chee did on the rez.

I'll press the comparison a bit farther. Both Booth and Hillerman created interesting characters, plotted stories that held my interest, and told those stories well. Hillerman's stories were usually less complex than Booth's, and I liked them for that. Booth seems to revel in complicating stories and alternating between telling threads of them. I do like the way that Booth's telling brings all the disparate people and events together, but getting there is a bit frustrating at times.

(All this about how Booth's writing reminds me of Hillerman is also reminding me of how much I miss those novels about the people of the Navajo Nation. I might have to do some re-reading.)

Ah, but The Dead Place. DC Cooper and DS Fry begin by searching for a crime after a body is discovered in the moors. But, the person discovered died of natural causes and was supposedly cremated by a local funeral director. Then there are anonymous letters and phone calls hinting at other bodies and predicting murders. There are Booth's usual diversions and the development of the working relationship between the two main cops. The book kept me reading throughout, even when we hosted a couple of wonderful toddlers and their mother from California for a week. Maybe it was the distraction of the little ones, maybe it was the hangover from the awfulness of the previous book, or any number of other things, but I didn't think The Dead Place was as good as the earlier books by Booth that I'd read. But, it was enjoyable. I will look for another when I return to the library.

Have you read The Dead Place or another of Booth's mysteries? What did you think?

Write and tell this little bit of the world how you reacted.

12 August 2012

Pretty damn stupid

If you asked me about Lunatics by Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel, I'd tell you it is pretty damn stupid.

If you asked my why I read most of it, I'd tell you I am pretty damn stupid.

The trouble is that I suspect the authors would be delighted with that description of the book and me.

Take two guys. One of whom spent years writing humorous newspaper columns. That's a way of saying he was two (or three) clicks short of funny. (That was my stupid attempt at being as humorous as Dave Barry.) The other guy wrote for Saturday Night Live, Gary Shandling's Show, Monk, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. (That's my second attempt as being as humorous as Dave Barry.)

Don't get it? Neither do I. And it makes more sense than the book.

I think what happened is that these two guys had too much to drink one night and challenged each other to collaborating on a book. Somebody wrote the first chapter with a humorous cliff hanger ending and passed it to the other guy. The other guy wrote a second chapter building on the humorousness of the first and ended it with a humorous cliff hanger, and passed it back to the first guy for the next chapter. Both of them were intent on stumping the other with their chapter non-endings and stupid developments.

Much of the humorousness reminded me of absurd things my 6th-grade buddy and I would make up after reading a new issue of Mad Magazine (25¢ Cheap). Pretty damn stupid.