Murder in Rural Quebec (And a Dollop of Nostalgia): A Fatal Grace

352921This is the last of the detective/crime fiction books that I will be reading this year. So I was a little disappointed that Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace was not as good as I hoped. I am not entirely sure why I did not enjoy it, but I’ll try and explain it below. The novel, the second in Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, takes place in a small rural village south of Montreal. A woman whom nobody liked, even her husband and daughter, is murdered in what seems like an impossible way. Gamache is called to the scene and is forced to fight the cold of a Quebec winter, a tight-knit community that is hiding some big secrets, and some political maneuvering in his department.

This last point leads into one of my major problems with the book. Penny keeps dropping hints about unrest in the Sûreté du Québec, the provincial police force. I have a strong feeling that most of these would be explained by reading Penny`s first book, Still Life. However, this annoyed me because I feel like books in a crime fiction series should be able to stand on their own. And, to be clear, A Fatal Grace makes sense and works on almost every level without any prior knowledge of the previous book. However, I found the constant hints and name-drops became annoying, particularly near the end of the novel where nothing really comes of it (except for a big revelation about one officer`s loyalties which I won`t spoil for you).

I think my second problem with the novel is that I just could not get into the setting and tone. There is a fair amount of nostalgia for a more idyllic rural life in this novel. Three Pines, the small village, could be a town in a snow globe. Its inhabitants all live in close harmony and there is plenty of Christmas cheer and community throughout. Of course, CC de Poitiers, the murder victim, stands outside the community and lives in a large Victorian estate looming over the village (okay I just have to say that this was a poor decision. Do we really have to rehash Gothic cliches?). Gamache, the central character of the series, is a likeable, noble-hearted investigator who is content with his position and seems to have no faults of any kind (except for being a genuinely good person). Now I’m not saying he has to be a hard-boiled detective with a crippling vice or a mean streak or a genuine case of misanthropy. But he comes across as too good to be true. I kept thinking he should just move to Three Pines and he would fit right in (he even fantasizes about this at one point).

Finally, I just was not on board with the little community of Three Pines. There is way too much nostalgia for a more relaxed pace of life and a tight-knit community where people don’t knock on doors. The list of characters includes a gay couple who own and operate a Bed and Breakfast, a painter couple, a Governor-General’s Award winning poet, and three elderly women who live in close harmony. Where are the people who make things run here? Is everyone in the village just affluent bourgeois? In a way, this is what makes A Fatal Grace appealing and is probably part of the book’s success. I just couldn’t get into it.

So, I would possibly recommend this book for hardcore detective fiction fans. But others should look elsewhere.

Penny, Louise. A Fatal Grace. New York: Minotaur Books, 2006. Print.

A Book About Movies And Gangsters: Get Shorty

get-shorty1Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty is a novel that winks at the reader throughout. In fact, reading the last page I actually laughed out loud. It has been a long time since a novel has made me do this, but Leonard pulled it off. In a way, Get Shorty is less of a crime novel/detective fiction and more of a novel about gangsters and movies. I suppose I was expecting more gritty crime but there is surprisingly little of this. This might be an aspect of overexposure on my part to violence, but I also think it is cleverly done on Leonard’s part to continually toy with our expectations. There are two murders in the novel, some drug dealing, and Chili Palmer, the main character, is a former loan-shark, but on the whole Get Shorty is surprisingly tame especially in comparison to Henning Mankell’s Sidetracked. But I think part of the point of Get Shorty is that crime is not as spectacular as people think it is. At various points, Chili has to explain to people that he never had to break people’s legs in order to collect on their debts. Despite already explaining to Harry Zimm, a B-movie producer who is hoping to resurrect his career, how he doesn’t break legs, Chili says “Or the guy thinks he could get ’em broken … You have to understand the loan shark’s in business the same as anybody else. He isn’t looking for a chance to hurt people. He’s in it to make money” (41). In many ways, Chili downplaying his loanshark activities becomes a motif that comes up at several points in the movie. If anything, he has to be more violent and cruel in the process of trying to get a movie off the ground.

Which brings me around to the plot: this is a novel about making a film rather than a novel about criminals and crime. Chili initially comes out to Hollywood and LA looking to collect one last debt for his employer, but it soon becomes clear he is also looking for a way out of the business. He meets Zimm at Karen Flores’ house, a B-movie actress whose career Zimm launched, and through them eventually meets Michael Weir, a Tom Cruise-like actor. What at first seems to be a sideplot – Chili’s idea for a movie – soon becomes the central core of the book itself. Along the way we also meet an LA drug dealer, Bo Catlett, a former movie stuntman, The Bear, and a few other movie executives. Reflecting on the novel now, it is almost as if Leonard intentionally brings the realms of the criminal underworld and the movie-making business together to look at each other. Both are enamored with the other although their misconceptions often prevent them from truly engaging with the other.

I am not really sure how to classify Get Shorty. If you read it as a crime novel, then it disappoints a little. It seems too intellectual, too invested in meta-ideas, to be a satisfying quick crime fix. So you almost need to approach it as a work of metafiction – a work about the making of movies, work that typically is invisible to the average movie-goer. Overall it was a very enjoyable reading experience, but I am also not sure what to do with Get Shorty either. The film adaptation was quite well-received and stars John Travolta as Chili. The Wikipedia page says that the film stays pretty close to the book’s script, so this might be the odd case of the film adaptation being as good (maybe even better?) than its literary source material.

I would recommend this book to hardcore cinema fans and people who like the mobster genre.

Leonard, Elmore. Get Shorty. New York: Bantam Doubleday, 1990. Print.

What Happens When You Don’t Follow Along: And Then There Were None

and-then-there-wereI had a problem with Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, and it has nothing to do with the novel or Christie’s craftsmanship. Instead, it has to do with my own unwillingness to abide by the rules of the mystery/crime genre. From the get-go, Christie is clear that the 10 characters who go to Soldier Island are the only 10 characters that will be on the island throughout the novel. One of these characters also happens to be a killer who is slowly knocking off each other character one by one. However, throughout the novel I simply assumed that the killer was not one of the ten and instead was somehow coming to and from a boat to kill them. Hence, I missed most of the suspense and thrill of And Then There Were None. Unfortunately, now that I’ve read the end, I can’t go back and start over because I already know who the villain is. This just goes to show me that the mystery/crime novel genre is probably not the one for me because I have a hard time buying into the genre’s conventions.

Christie’s novel is a masterpiece though. Even though I’m not a fan of the genre, by the end of And Then There Were None, it is easy to see just how carefully put together the whole narrative is. If you are a much more careful reader than I am, you might be able to pick out the killer and solve the crimes even before you finish, but doing so would be quite amazing because Christie is very careful to cover her tracks efficiently. The central hook in this story is that each of the 10 characters has a shady past that none is willing to openly talk about. It quickly becomes clear that they have all committed murder but within the boundaries of law. For example, one character knows that he will be sending a man to his doom during the war, but does so anyways, while a second character refuses to have a pregnant single girl in her house and sends her out into the cold night without any mercy. The killer, then, is motivated by some kind of sense of seeking justice outside of the law. This plot setup makes for wonderful tension between the characters as each suspects the other of being the villain. Of course, if I had bought into Christie`s setup, it would have been that much more tense.

Christie utilises a third-person limited viewpoint but allows readers to experience different characters’ thoughts throughout the narrative. This is a very effective technique to flesh out the tension of the plot, but it also quite effective at covering up who the real killer is because that will not be revealed until the final pages of the novel itself. In these pages, the killer confesses their crimes and carefully explains how everything was accomplished so that it is almost as if Christie takes readers by the hands and leads us through the plot. It was at this point that I realized my mistake and regretted my unwillingness to suspend belief.

On a weird sidenote that came up as I was looking for a cover image, apparently this book was first published as Ten Little Niggers in the U.K. When it was published in the US, it was re-titled And Then There Were None although a number of editions were also titled Ten Little Indians. Talk about politically incorrect rhymes/titles!

I would recommend And Then There Were None to fans of crime fiction because it is an outstanding mystery plot. But if you don’t enjoy this genre, it’s probably not worth your time.

Christie, Agatha. And Then There Were None. 1939. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2004. Print.

Mystery Down in the Don River Valley: Free Reign

freerAnother bit of work sneaking onto the list, this time in the form of Rosemary Aubert’s Free Reign. The novel features a disgraced lawyer now living in Toronto’s Don River valley who is called back up into the streets when he discovers a human hand with a special ring on it in his garden. Sounds like an interesting plot setup doesn’t it? Unfortunately, as a mystery/suspense novel, Free Reign does not quite live up to the promise it shows. For my own academic work, I am interested in how the Don River valley shows up in the novel so reading it was not a loss by any means. However, as a pleasure read, I’m not convinced that Aubert’s book works that well.

One of the primary rules of mystery/suspense novels is that they adhere to a high degree of verisimilitude. They must be believable even if the crimes/mysteries are often spectacularly sensational. By rigidly adhering to the rules of the actual world, a mystery novelist can then throw in some surprising events that become believable based on the previous work done by verisimilitude. In a way, fiction has to be truer to life than life itself. Read any tabloid and some of the crimes are so spectacular as to beg belief. The problem with Free Reign is not so much the fact that Ellis Portal, the disgraced judge, lives in the Don River valley (many of Toronto’s homeless live in this area – see this Globe and Mail story and this academic article for more), but more the manner in which everything gets conveniently tied up at the novel’s end. I won’t spoil the novel’s twist but the ending really does read like a Disney script. I couldn’t stand this and was left with a bitter taste in my mouth.

The other problem, at least for me, is that Aubert’s novel seems to be structurally flawed in a crucial way. Although the mystery of Ellis’s disgrace is alluded to early on and the mysterious hand appears in the first few pages, the actual source of mystery, a teen pregnancy hostel in a seedier area of Toronto, does not show up until later in the novel. When Aubert ties everything together, which is one of the more satisfying aspects of mystery novels, I felt like she had somehow cheated. For some reason, I feel that readers should be able to solve the crime/mystery as well but with this novel the timing of the appearance of the various parts of the mystery plot was off. Moreover, the novel itself sets up an interesting class critique but then goes on to completely nullify this by making the villains appear heroic or noble. The academic in me was not happy.

Overall, the novel does some very interesting things with the Don River valley and, for Toronto readers, Free Reign could be a fun read, matching a fictional narrative to actual places in city.

I would recommend this book for Toronto fans of mystery, but be warned that it leaves something to be desired.

Aubert, Rosemary. Free Reign. Bridgehampton, NY: Bridge Works Publishing Company, 1997. Print.

Is Swedish Crime Writing For You?: Sidetracked

imagesHenning Mankell’s Sidetracked is an international bestseller and it is easy to see why. The book is a well-written hard-boiled/police procedural that follows Kurt Wallander as he attempts to solve a series of gruesome killings. In many ways, it seems like an episode of CSI with a perverse criminal who scalps his victims after killing them expertly with an axe. Lingering in the background of these crimes is the haunting suicide of a girl who burns herself to death right in front of Wallander at the beginning of the novel. Mankell keeps the narrative quite tight and moves the action along at a good pace. I quite enjoyed this aspect and it is pretty clear that Mankell is no first-time writer. One of the more interesting parts of Sidetracked is how the novel also reflects on contemporary Sweden and what kind of conditions make possible the existence of a serial killer like the one they are tracking. Not being from Sweden nor knowing anyone from there, I cannot verify whether the social commentary in the novel is accurate.

All that being said, there were two things that I was not a fan of. The first is a plot device whereby the serial killer narrates his crimes in various interludes throughout the narrative. For some reason, I wanted his identity to remain a mystery but quite early on it becomes obvious who it is. Mankell does use this to good effect in the latter portions of the novel when the killer begins to hunt Wallander himself. There were a number of tense scenes that I quite enjoyed, but on the whole I did not like knowing the killer’s identity so early.

The second issue I had with Sidetracked is more structural. The shocking nature of the killings and the implied sexual perversion that seems to link all the victims together. Is there something with Swedish writers and sexual perversion? I’m thinking of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo here. I wonder if the victim’s sexual crimes justifies on some level their violent death at the hands of the serial killer. This might be stretching it, but I don’t get the sense that Mankell wants us to pity his victims in any way. They are, at least in this novel, despicable men whose death makes the world a better place. But I worry about where the position this puts readers in: are we somehow made complicit in these character’s deaths? Do we want the killer to continue killing? These are all questions that are not answerable in the confines of this post (or maybe even in a dissertation). But I’m glad that Sidetracked has raised them for me.

I would recommend this book for fans of crime fiction or someone looking for a pleasurable if somewhat over the top summer read.

Mankell, Henning. Sidetracked. Trans. Steven T. Murray. New York: Vintage Crime, 2003. Print.

Spies, Betrayal, and Loyalty: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

 

tinker-tailorIn the interest of forthrightness, I have to admit that I saw the 2011 BBC adaptation of John le Carré`s Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy before I read the novel. Of course, I watched the film last year so I had forgotten large parts of the plot by the time I started reading this book. Tinker, Tailor (as I`ll call it from now on) is a great novel. It is part mystery novel, part spy thriller, and a dash of detective fiction all mixed in. There has been a scandal at Cambridge Circus, Britain’s secret service agency in le Carré`s novel. Jim Prideaux was shot twice in the back in Soviet Czechoslovakia, Control, the former head of the agency, has died, and George Smiley has been put out to pasture by the new regime. Smiley is called back into service by a minister, a distant cousin of his wife’s, and a former colleague, Lacon. Everything happens in media res as Smiley interrogates a repatriated spy who may have connections to a potential Russian defector.

 

What makes this novel great, at least in my mind, is the way le Carré draws readers along into ever deepening pools of mystery. It’s as if we are entering a cave and things keep getting darker the farther along we go, until in the closing chapters, le Carré shows us the light in Smiley’s careful thinking. I have not necessarily been sold on the mystery/crime fiction genre so far, but this book was a real page-turner. I spent most of yesterday reading a good two thirds of this book because I just could not put it down. Part of the thrill is the careful peeling away of layers of deception that le Carré performs. The truth is not what it seems in this novel even if by the end you have a pretty clear sense of who the bad guys are and what they did.

 

I felt like this novel was also about the decline of British Empire. Part of this might be an over-eagerness on my part as an academic to read national narratives onto literature, but I do think there is some merit to this. At the heart of the action is a regime change in the Circus. The old ways are no longer possible and young professionals are chomping at the bit to push Control over the edge. The high-level mole uses this tension to get himself into a position of high authority while continuing to transmit secrets to Russia. There are numerous sections throughout where characters rue the loss of Britain’s authority and one of the mole’s main priorities is being in an advantageous position to manipulate and gain American intelligence of Russia. Le Carré was a member of MI5 and MI6 before he began writing espionage novels full time after his first few had done quite well. And this background comes through in the kind of detailed texture that Thinker, Tailor weaves together.

 

This is a big novel, full of intrigue, specific details, and intricate action. In a way, I felt like watching the movie had helped make some of these contexts more understandable for myself (being a Canadian and not British by any means). I would say, as I usually do, that the novel is better than the film adaptation because I had a much greater sense of closure at the end of the narrative. At the same time, this is a big, dense book, and for readers who can be put off by size or density, this might not be for them.

 

I would recommend this book to readers of detective/crime fiction and those who love all things Britain.

 

le Carré, John. Thinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974. Print.

Quick and Brutal: The Hunter

hunterWow, that was over fast. This was probably the fastest read book I’ve had so far. I think I may have started this morning. Richard Stark’s The Hunter is noir fiction with Parker the betrayed thief who lays a bloody trail of revenge out over the novel’s 190 pages. L, a colleague who writes on detective fiction, has helped me to make some sense of the various genres of detective/crime fiction and after reading this I can see the importance of these tags. Parker pulls heist or bankroll job once or twice a year to fund his resort hotel lifestyle, but he is betrayed by his wife and a sleazy disgraced gangster, Mal. The plot centres on Parker’s attempt to have his revenge on Mal, but in doing so it also shines a light on New York in what I can only guess is the 1930s. There is an element of stylized description and setting in this book, and I would be amiss not to mention that I have also read Darwyn Cooke’s graphic adaptations of Stark’s series. They are excellent and well-worth a glance if you are interested in graphic novels.

As to The Hunter, I am not sure how I feel about it. Quick and brutal sums up my feelings of the narrative arc of the novel. There is plenty of violence along with the seedier aspects of organized crime. However, I would not say that the novel revels in the violence or the crime. What surprised me was how the novel asks readers to sympathize with the wronged Parker, in part, condoning his quest for a bloody revenge. Parker is a hard man whose ego drives him to “right” the “wrong” done to him. There’s something sexy with Stark’s writing (I should say that Stark is a pseudonym for Donald Westlake). I wanted to root for Parker, but something held me back. Call it a sense that literature should call its readers to higher purposes. This is not to say that all books must be moral, in fact many books shed a light on morals precisely by not being moral, but I found nothing redemptive about this book. I just did not enjoy the misogyny or the casual violence of The Hunter.

This is not to say that Stark’s book is not well-written. It is. It’s just that the subject matter does not interest me in any sustained manner. I never liked The Sopranos, so I am going to go out on a limb and guess that noir fiction is not for me. However, the variety in the selection of detective/noir fiction will hopefully help keep this group from getting stale.

I would not recommend this book to most readers. I suppose if I knew you liked noir fiction, I would recommend it but I don’t really know many who like crime/detective novels to being with.

Stark, Richard. The Hunter. 1962. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008. Print.

PS – The image I found for the cover is from the original run of the book. It looks pretty amazing. I feel like current trends in book covers just do not match the allure of previous generations.