Tuesday, September 2, 2014

THE LONG WAY HOME by Louise Penny



 




Louise Penny’s The Long Way Home lives up to its title.

At least three major characters take the long way home, the long way to the peace Three Pines offers.

Former Quebec Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, Clara Morrow, and her husband Peter are among those trying to find their way.

Clara asks Gamache to help her search for her husband Peter. They separated a year ago, but Peter did not return as agreed. Clara fears the worst.

Gamache struggles with Clara’s request. Did Gamache retire to escape, to relax and heal, to avoid doing what he has always done? Or does his retirement involve something else?

From what is Gamache coming home? Does it have to do with the book he reads each morning, though he never goes beyond a bookmarked page?

The search for Peter is tedious. Most of the way, Clara, not Gamache, is in charge. Gamache and the others search people’s minds and emotions. (By and large, these are artists’ troubled minds.)

With the help of Three Pines’ Myrna and Ruth, Gamache solves a crime they don’t know is happening until near the end of the book.

Even the catastrophically suffering Peter finds his way home.

I saw The Long Way Home as a book about retirement.

I live in a retirement community. I watch many retired people.

Some retirees want to continue what they have always done. Some want to do yard work and to putter around in the woods. Some are trying to put their lives back together following great stress. Some want to be involved, to be leaders in community groups. Some want to play games, go to dances, or attend parties. Some are simply sick and dying. 

The Long Way Home is about retirees (and others) trying to rebuild their lives. For Gamache, his retirement comes to be something in between relaxation and involvement. 

The Long Way Home was not an easy book to read. It is too thoughtful, too plodding (in the first half, at least). But that’s Louise Penny.

I had wondered what direction Armand Gamache would take in his retirement. Now I know.

In one way, he is like I am. Over the years, he gave too much to other people. He is using his retirement to find himself, to find his long way home.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

I SHALL NOT WANT by Julia Spencer-Fleming



 




Julia Spencer-Fleming’s I Shall Not Want has three love stories, three slam-bang endings, and a well-plotted, socially-conscious story.

The small Adirondack town of Millers’ Kill, New York, seems to be the domain of a serial killer. Townspeople find at least two murdered Mexican immigrants.  They may have been farmhands in the local dairy farms. (Struggling small dairy farmers cannot get along without immigrant farmhands.)

At the same time, Russ Van Alstyne and his force deal with a long-term family of thugs.

As the investigation proceeds, Russ learns of the extensive Mexican mob-run drug trafficking in the Miller’s Kill area.

All this comes to involve the Rev. Clare Fergusson and her Episcopal church. Clare teams up with a socially-active Catholic nun to support the immigrant cause.

She ends up housing a legal immigrant. He is the substitute sexton at the church.   

Those who have read the books in order, know that Clare and Russ are struggling with their relationship (to put it tamely). 

I Shall Not Want has realistic violence and explicit sex.

The story has the usual religious trappings, except they aren’t trappings. Clare’s religious beliefs and her love of liturgy are at the heart of the story.

I’ve said it before. These books are best read in order. Each is another episode in a continuing story. Spencer-Fleming writes about contemporary social and religious issues in a human context.

Clare is a citizen soldier, a National Guard helicopter pilot who happens to pastor a small town church. She is strong, impulsive, willing to butt in where she shouldn’t, and, most of all, a person with a strong moral compass. Both Clare and Russ are powerful characters.

I’m now reading Louise Penny’s The Long Way Home. (Talk about a surfeit of riches!)

I couldn’t help but be struck by the contrasts between the Penny and the Spencer-Fleming books. Inspector Gamache is quiet and cerebral. Much of the Three Pines story occurs in the characters’ minds. It is not that the Penny books don’t have setting and action, but it is the interior life of those characters that attracts me.

The Spencer-Fleming books are action oriented.

I am in mystery reading heaven to have these books to read back to back.

So, Clare’s and Russ’ stories continue.

I doubt the Millers Kill saga has a fully happy ending. The Clare Ferguson-Russ Van Alstyne books are too realistic for that.

Monday, August 25, 2014

ALL MORTAL FLESH by Julia Spencer-Fleming








I want to dislike the Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne books, but I don’t. I like them a lot.

Some reasons I want to dislike them--

They seem manipulated. They are like episodic TV. Each episode ups the ante.

I can’t believe any bishop would keep a minister in a community where she has faced the situations Clare faces.

One of the quickest ways to fracture a congregation or a small community is for the minister to have what appears to be an “inappropriate” relationship. The bishop’s second in command knows about the connection between Clare and Russ.

Sometimes police make unlikely (and convenient for the story) mistakes.

I am almost offended by the ways Russ lets Clare take part in investigations. She goes places where no civilian should ever be.

I watch how everything that happens ratchets up the tension. The state investigator comes in predisposed to trash Russ and Clare. Russ finds out Linda’s secrets, and those secrets are devastating to Russ.

I find much of the premise fantastic (in the sense of unbelievable).

Yet, I like the stories. And my wife loves them. She has read the whole series.

In All Mortal Flesh Russ and his wife Linda separate. Then Linda’s best friend finds Linda murdered in the Van Alstyne house. (This is not a spoiler. The author’s blog mentions this.) 

Russ has made the choice to stay with Linda. He faces a perhaps-not-unusual dilemma. He loves two women--Linda and Clare. But he has decided between them. If his wife will let him, he will be faithful to his vows.

The bishop installs a new deacon in the parish. In the Episcopal church the role of deacon is that of an ordained person whose rank is below the clergy. The new deacon seems to Clare to be the bishop’s spy.

And clearly something terrible is happening in Millers Kill.

The story ends as usual, with intense action threatening one or more of the main characters.

You have to read these books to understand them. For me, one of the best things about them is that Clare Fergusson is a spiritual person. As human as she is, she is more loyal to God (as she sees God) than she is to Russ.

Clare is an intelligent, impulsive, strong, determined woman. She does hard things because she thinks God wants her do them.

The books have a liturgical basis. Most of them start with and are built around words from hymns, prayers or scripture. The titles come from prayers, songs, or scripture.

These are among the strangest books I read. But, as I said, I like them. I have two more to read to complete the series as it stands so far. I have already started on the next one.



P.S. One suggestion. If you have not read any of these books and want to read one, I suggest you start with 2002’s In the Bleak Midwinter. The books build on one another. Reading them from first to last would give continuity to the complete story.

-----

QUOTATIONS FROM ALL MORTAL FLESH--

“This just doesn’t strike me as being the church’s business,” Elizabeth said.

“Business? Mankind is our business,” Lois quoted, picking up her notepad and swiveling off her chair. “Mind if I use your phone, Deacon?”

         --The new church deacon argues that Clare should not minister to people outside her congregation.

-----

“So I’m going there to check things out.”

“Why? Is he one of ours?”

A question designed to make Clare snatch out her hair. She fell back on St. Luke. “The Lawyer seeking to justify himself, asked Jesus, ‘Who is my neighbor?’”

The deacon had the grace to look abashed.

-----

“In the short time I’ve been here, I can see how much you care for your congregation. But don’t you think the members of St. Alban’s have a right to expect their rector to keep her focus on them?”

Thursday, August 21, 2014

MURDER BY THE BOOK by Rex Stout








It has been a long time.

Like most of us, I suppose, years ago I read and loved Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books. When Amazon offered Murder by the Book (1951) on a daily Kindle special, I took them up on the offer.

A grieving father asks Wolfe to investigate what he thinks is the murder of his daughter. She worked for a book publisher. The murder appears to have been a hit-and-run automobile accident.

Wolfe might not have accepted the case except that weeks ago Inspector Cramer brought him a list of names found on a slip of paper in another murdered man’s book. The names were aliases. One of those names was the pen name on a manuscript the man’s daughter had rejected. That rejected author took the daughter to dinner the night she died.

This leads Wolfe and Archie to investigate three murders connected to the manuscript. They keep hitting dead ends until they pull a scam to shake up things, and that breaks the case open.

This is Archie’s story. Archie does most of the complicated legwork. He has some of the ideas. He earns at least three of Wolfe’s “satisfactories” and one “very satisfactory.”

Archie’s work is loathsome. He interviews ten (mostly younger) women and dates a couple of them.

These books are so deftly written. If there are facts the reader shouldn’t know, Saul Panzer, not the narrator Archie Goodwin, investigates them. Wolfe (and Stout) keep the facts from Archie.

Rex Stout’s plotting is intricate, and his characters (especially the brilliant, eccentric Nero Wolfe and the woman-loving Archie) make the rest work.

It was good to get back to reading about Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.

Monday, August 18, 2014

DRY BONES IN THE VALLEY by Tom Bouman



 




Tom Bouman’s Dry Bones in the Valley is an authentic small town police procedural.

I call the book authentic because Wild Thyme, Pennsylvania, policeman Henry Farrell solves the crime the way a small town policeman would. He listens, he watches, and he knows the people.

Aub Dunigan shotguns Danny Stiobhard wounding Stiobhard and causing the local doctor to call Henry Farrell.

That leads Farrell to Aug’s small farm where he finds an unidentified body.

Someone killed the man months earlier. The murderer stuffed the body in a crevice to be covered by the winter snow.

Aub swears he didn’t kill the man. In the midst of the investigation, someone murders Farrel’s deputy. And the story goes from there.

Farrell is at the bottom of the law enforcement heap. When the sheriff, the state police, and finally the DEA become involved, Farrell is more shut out than included.

But he continues talking to this strange mix of people. Aub Dunigan is the most interesting of them all.

A declining recluse, Aub has his own secrets and tragedies. Those become clear in the course of the story.

Along the way, Farrell searches fracking sites around While Thyme. He hates fracking. His wife died of virulent cancer. He believes fracking chemicals caused the disease.

Also, Wild Thyme township harbors Meth labs run by druggies who have migrated from the city. Wild Thyme is a strange mix of its Gaelic heritage, isolated reclusive characters, and modern environmental abuse and crime.

The title Dry Bones in the Valley doesn’t refer to the bodies unearthed in the story. Those bodies have not yet been reduced to bones. Instead, I think Dry Bones in the Valley refers to the bones of ancient animals. Those animals and their decay makes this part of Pennsylvania rich in gas and oil.

At one point, Farrell describes his job as much like hunting. He quietly notices, watchs, waits, and when he is close enough, closes in to find the killer.

In this case, the killing comes from an unexpected source.

My only struggle with this book was in keeping up with the vast array of characters.

I spent most of my growing up and working years in small Missouri towns. (I’m talking about small towns, 10,000 or fewer, mostly a lot fewer.)

I am often skeptical of small town mysteries. Some authors don’t understand small towns. 

Dry Bones in the Valley is an excellent, authentic, small town mystery.