08 March 2015

Ignore this

Seriously, ignore this. Not the book. Ignore my review.

The book is Reginald Hill's The Woodcutter.
It's been so long since I read it, I have only the vaguest memories of the story. I read the reviews and still don't recall much of the plot.

I remember enough to be convinced that I read it. I can't even remember where the recommendation came from. I must have had one because I bought the book at Half Price Books. It must have been on a list I had. Where did that list come from?

If I finished this 500-page tome, it must have been readable. Was it great? I don't know. I think I'll go with Marilyn Stasio's comment (see below) that it's a grand fairy tale. Heroic figure who rises from
obscurity, achieves three major quests, wins the hand of the princess, fathers a wonderful daughter, loses everything (including an eye), sits for years in prison, and then has the opportunity for revenge... 

If you read it, or have read it, please add to this. Maybe I'll not put it in the box for the used book sale and re-read it if you think it's worth it.

Another solution to a "used up" character

Henning Mankell has written nearly a dozen crime novels featuring Swedish detective Kurt Wallander. Wallander fits the stereotype of crime novel detectives. But Mankell added some spark that made his character stand out.

In The Troubled Man, Mankell announces the end of Wallander's "public" life. "After that," Mankell writes, "there is nothing more. The story of Kurt Wallander is finished, once and for all."

But before that last line, before he is swallowed up by the shadow of forgetfulness, Wallander works to resolve one more mystery. This one involves the disappearance of his daughter's father-in-law-to-be. The older man had been a commander in the Swedish navy who had been involved in a bit of international intrigue involving a Russian submarine trapped in a Swedish fjord. Well, everyone assumed it was a Russian submarine and no one would talk about how or why it had escaped identification and capture.

Of course it's more complicated than that. The wife of the commander also disappeared. Long ago, she had been a refugee from East Germany. Or, at least everyone thought she was a refugee. Had she been a spy? Was there a larger meaning to the papers found on her body? And how does this affect Wallander's daughter and new granddaughter?

Oh, and was this somehow related to the murder of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986?

Mankell adds so many distant and political aspects to the mix, that it's hard to imagine Wallander finding any firm answers. Probably only Stieg Larsson's Lisbeth Salander could have figured it all out and played vigilante to punish the evil doers.

Mankell is a master at story telling and character creation. He's also a master at putting one character out to pasture. I don't think I've read all the Wallander novels, though I've seen quite a few television versions. I might have to go through plot summaries and find the ones I haven't read yet.

07 March 2015

Long time coming

It's not just that it took me months to get around to writing about this. The first recommendation I had about this was a decade ago.

Ten years ago, Bird Loomis wrote about enjoying Ian Rankin's mysteries featuring John Rebus. Last summer I finally read an Ian Rankin book, but John Rebus was nowhere to be found in it. It seems the old guy had retired and a new main character, Malcolm Fox appeared.

Well, we can't have that. Conan Doyle had to bring Holmes back from the dead. Like Harry Bosch and Carl Morck, Rebus returns as a civilian to a cold case group (in Edinburgh it's called "Serious Crime Review"). The book is called, Standing in Another Man's Grave.

Rankin and his book

Rebus retired, but he has no life outside of detection or drinking or smoking. His chance to keep investigating is the only real possibility for him.

He gets a call from a woman whose daughter disappeared back in 1999. The woman says her daughter's disappearance must be related to the disappearance of several young women in the same vicinity in recent years. It's just the kind of case Rebus can't stay away from. Even though it brings him to the edge of a grave.

It also gets him in touch with Rankin's new character Malcolm Fox. Fox runs the complaints department and knows Rebus' reputation and hates it. Can he get rid of Rebus? Can Rebus drive around Scotland enough to wear out his vintage Saab? Will a gangster, on whose toes Rebus stepped, push Rebus into another man's grave? After the retirement age is raised, can Rebus get back on the force? Does it matter that the title is a mis-hearing of a song title, "Standing in Another Man's Rain"?

The story is well told. I enjoyed reading it. I think it's time for me to haunt Half Priced Books and look for some of Rankin's older books. What a fine prospect.

Traveling in another's mind

Louise Erdrich's little book, Books and Island in Ojibwe Country, didn't remind me of Dostoyevsky. It reminded me of Malcolm X's account of his pilgrimage to Mecca. It wasn't so much the enlightenment of the travel as the sense of sacredness and the repetition of ritual that made me think of the journey to a far away desert place.

She begins by describing the trees around her home in Minneapolis, all of which she's named. Then she travels north to a big lake.

Erdrich went by boat to islands in Lake of the Woods, that huge lake on the border between Canada and the US. There are hundreds of islands in the lake, many of them with rocky cliffs around their edges. And many of those cliffs are home to ancient paintings left by Ojibwe people. The creatures and the symbols in those paintings are still familiar to many people in the ancient Ojibwe homeland.

Copper Thunderbird, also known as Norval Morrisseau, was an Ojibwe artist whose works were based on the cliff paintings. They are marvels of color and shape, but they speak of the Ojibwe past and magic.
Mishipzheu on a cliff face
Morriseau's drawing

The bench, a featured facility
After reflecting on the ancient images, Erdrich meets a friend to begin a retreat at Ernest Olberholtzer's old home on Rainy Lake. There, she reflects on books and paintings and writing and perserving identity and the past. Oh, and on birds as well.

Throughout the journey, Erdrich's  infant daughter is her companion. Her daughter is an active and living connection with the future. Caring for her makes time for reflections of the past to project into her future.

And then Erdrich returns to her home near, you should have guessed, Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis. That's when she discovers that some of her precious trees, including the last elm have been blown down by a huge storm.

It's a book about nothing but life. And a journey to sacred places and times remembered and foreseen. It was a great pleasure to read it. Go for it.

No procrastination, this time

It's been over 40 years since I read any Dostoyevsky, but I had flashbacks last night while reading Karin Fossum's Bad Intentions. Someone at NPR said a Fossum mystery is "equal parts whodunit, heart-thumper and creep show." Fossum says they are “small, quiet stories.”

Well, Bad Intentions may be small (just over 200 pages) but it's not quiet. It is creepy. It's really not a mystery, and her main detective, Inspector Sejer, plays a very minor role in the plot. But it was, for me, a "heart-thumper." Two of the main characters were guilt-ridden, Dostoyevsky-like characters. A third was a Dostoyevsky-like manipulator, who evaded his own guilty feelings by attributing them to "lesser men."

The story revolves around the death of a man after a drinking party. Three friends who were involved in hiding the body, if not directly in the man's death, try to find ways of living with their memories. One of them ends up in a mental hospital, another in a quest to stay as high as possible for as along as possible. The third friend tries to find ways to get his buddies to carry his guilt as well as their own. Two of the friends are obviously in danger and my fear for them kept me reading as much as Fossum's skill in telling the story and probing the minds of the three main characters.

I was struck by Barry Forshaw's comment in his review of Bad Intentions in The Independent (UK). He described a mystery writer's conference where everyone was having a good time with "shop talk." Then Karin Fossum spoke: "Fossum... was having none of the brandy-induced good humour that had preceded her, and her truly terrifying description of a real-life child murder was delivered point blank to a suddenly sober audience. People shifted uneasily in their seats, but it was a salutary reminder that crime – however pleasurable on the page – has grim consequences in the non-literary world." It's a connection that even the graphic visuals of television's medical examiners don't often make for viewers.

If you're looking for a short narrative story about human frailty, this might be a book to go to. If you need your stereotypes of Norway adjusted, this might be a place to begin. If you want a deep exploration of guilt, go to Dostoyevsky. Just remember that Dostoyevsky's books are really long.

04 March 2015

Better late than never?

Once again, I have procrastinated about writing things about books I've read. The books have piled up on my desk and my dresser. Why, oh why?

I have no answer.

Diversion: The last I read of Maisie Dobbs, Jacqueline Winspear's hero, she had closed her private investigator's business and headed for India. It was a good move, because the character and the story lines had become rather stale. In the last two years, Winspear wrote a novel about life during World War I, and has another Maisie Dobbs mystery coming out in July. The new novel is set in Gibraltar, which might help revive the franchise.

Long running series (common to mystery writers) based on one or two primary characters, face the risk of repetition, especially if the characters are portrayed in consistent ways. Louise Penny faced that problem with her Armand Gamache novels set in the tiny village of Three Pines, Quebec. She has dealt with it by changing the status of her main character and having him retire to the little village and do some private sleuthing for one of his new neighbors.

Louise Penny has written a series of books (10 so far) about Quebec Detective Inspector Armand Gamache. Somehow he's investigated nearly a dozen major crimes in the tiny (Lake Wobegon-sized) village of Three Pines. That tiny village not only seemed to be a magnet for crime, but also for an incredible variety of interesting people (equally unlikely events in my experience). But those characteristics are what made Penny's stories so interesting. The new book is The Long Way Home.

In the book that preceded The Long Way Home, the great detective cracked a major corruption case that involved the highest levels of the Quebec police force. Then he retired to the tiny village of Three Pines that he'd come to know so well, thus increasing the variety and number of interesting people in the village.

Painter Clara Morrow's husband Peter, also a painter, went missing. The two of them had had a sort of competition as artists, and Clara had won more fame and fortune. Had Peter ceded the stage to his successful wife, had he gone off in search of a new muse, or had he given up on living? Who better to help locate the missing man than a nearby, retired police inspector? Peter's trail is obscure and convoluted.

The retired DI has to deal with the remnants of an artistic commune from the '60s. Surrounding the ruins of the commune are rumors of murders (bring in the cadaver dogs) and plagiarism (check in with a gallery owner in Montreal). Somehow, Peter was linked to the commune in the past. Was his disappearance linked to a reconnection with its notorious former leader? Oh, yes, asbestos too. Deadly asbestos. And a sad, "O. Henry" ending for the loving couple, Clara and Peter.

Well done, Louise Penny. You found a way to extend the series of Gamache novels.