Wednesday, May 25, 2016

WHY I READ MYSTERY STORIES, AND WHY I BLOG

I read the books I do for enjoyment. I don't read them or write about them to promote them, though it seems like a little bonus if I help lead someone else to a book I enjoyed.

I blog, not so much to be read as to focus my own thoughts about my reading. I've been that way all my life. I think in writing. I don't fully formulate my thoughts unless I write them down.

Maybe some of the rest of you are like that too. For me to think something through, I have to write it down. Also, writing is among the most enjoyable things I do.

So that's what this blog is about, formulating my own thoughts. As I've gotten older, I find myself having to refresh my memory about something I read a while ago. My brief writings help me do that.

Every once in a while, it is good to remind myself what I am about. I'm not about having a lot of people read what I write. I'm not about trying to impress anybody (when I do that, I always fail). I'm about writing for myself, and if people happen to look in, they are always welcome. --Joe Barone.


Monday, May 16, 2016

THE SEA DETECTIVE by Mark Douglas-Home








Mark Douglas-Home's The Sea Detective weaves together three good stories.

Edinburgh, Scotland, police catch Caladh McGill trying to plant strange plants in the gardens of well-known public officials. 

McGill is a climate change protester. The plants are plants from among the few species to have survived the age of the glaciers. McGill plants them in public and private gardens to warn of the second coming glacial age.

With this opening, and a humorous exchange with pompous Detective Inspector David Ryan, Cal McGill, "the sea detective," links up with the police.

McGill is a PhD oceanography student. He studies ocean currents and how they affect flotsam and jetsam.

When police begin to find human feet clad in Nike sneakers washing up on local shores, DC Helen Jamieson, an outcast assistant to the pompous Ryan, thinks to enlist McGill in the investigation.

That the first story.

The second story has to do with human trafficking. Basanti, a 14-year-old Bengalese girl escapes from the brutal pedophiles who have brought her to Scotland. She asks McGill to use his oceanography skills to help her find another trafficked friend.

The third story is the story of McGill's grandfather Uilleam Sinclair and what happened to him on his isolated home island in the WW II.

All the stories are interesting in themselves. They work together wonderfully. 

The Sea Detective has other stories too. McGill's relationship with his divorced wife, and Jamieson's family story are among them.

I skipped other things to find time to read The Sea Detective.

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I learned about this book on an excellent blog--Kittling: Books.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

LET'S HEAR IT FOR THE DEAF MAN by Ed McBain



 




Sometimes I forget how much I like Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series.

I was reading along in Let's Hear It for the Deaf Man, and I found myself thinking, "This is a pretty ordinary book." Then I came to the ending. It was a marvelous ending in what is a good (not nearly the best) 87th Precinct book.

Steve Carella and the other detectives in the 87th work on three major cases--a series of cat burglaries, a gruesome crucifixion-like murder, and an upcoming bank robbery.

Carella's long-term adversary the Deaf Man sends photographs giving clues as to when and where the bank robbery will occur. He challenges the squad to keep him from robbing the bank. And he almost pulls it off. That's where one part of the unexpected ending comes in.

Meanwhile, the cat burglar leaves a kitten at the scene of each robbery. He breaks in without jimmying any of the doors or windows. He seems to know when the tenants are on vacation or away.

And the crucifixion-like murder leads the squad to an unusual murderer.

In the midst of all this, Kling begins a love affair, and someone attacks Carella and his wife Teddy.

Ed McBain is my favorite mystery writer. If I remember right, my favorite of the 87th Precinct books was Eight Black Horses. In that book, the Deaf Man becomes an even more dangerous psychopathic killer. And as always, he toys with Carella and the squad, leading them on.

It has been a while since I've read Ed McBain. I was glad to get back to my favorite mystery writer.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

LOVE STORY, WITH MURDERS by Harry Bingham









Harry Bingham's Love Story, With Murders has an unusual ending.

Cardiff, Wales Detective Constable Fiona Griffiths decides to investigate her own life.

Prior to that, Fiona had helped solve the five-year-old murder of a young woman whose severed leg police found under mounds of food in a local freezer.

Police found other body parts stored in other places around the neighborhood. Someone murdered the woman, cut her up, and scattered her body parts far and wide.

Fiona also helped solve the murder of a brilliant engineer involved with a local tool and die fabricating company. She investigated the apparent suicide of a man who worked for the company. (He had been framed and was in prison.) She faced her own death, a unique experience given her death-centered mental illness. And she continued her affair with a fellow cop.

Along the way, Fiona learns surprising things about her intimidating supervisor. She suspects her father (a long-time local mobster) may be connected to the murders. And she talks to the spirits of the dead (another symptom of her mental illness).

In other words, this book keeps you reading.

(For a while, I hesitated to say what comes next, but now I will.)

In a strange way, Harry Bingham's Fiona Griffiths books remind me of my favorite writer, Ed McBain. Bingham writes clearly and keeps the story moving. His characters are real and interesting. And his stories are unusual.

McBain’s 87th precinct novels involve an ensemble cast. Bingham's Finoa Griffiths novels have an ensemble, but they center on Fiona. Still, I always look forward to reading them.

The one difference which would make me lean to McBain over Bingham, is that McBain writes tight prose. Bringham's books are full of detail and much longer.

But still, if you are looking for a good story well-told, I don't think you can go wrong with Harry Bingham's Fiona Griffiths stories.

Friday, April 22, 2016

STICK GAME by Peter Bowen






Peter Bowen's The Stick Game is not a mystery. It is a story about the rape of Native American sacred land.

Gabriel Du Pré's lover Madelain asks Du Pré to look for a missing person. Madelaine's cousin Jeanne's son Danny has run away. He has been suffering memory loss. His behavior has changed greatly.

Du Pré finds Danny's body down a well. He has committed suicide.

As Du Pré traces the story, he finds that a mining operation is poisoning Montana's Sweet Grass Hills. The miners do something which sounds similar to fracking. They insert cyanide-laced water into the ground to leach out the small otherwise-unminable bits of gold. Then the cyanide flows into the groundwater ending up in the drinking water of the poorest people in the area.

Du Pré gathers the experts he needs to try to fight the crime.

Along the way he plays his Metis music at several festivals, works with Bart to help Jeanne deal with her alcoholism, watches Jeanne play the gambling hide-and-seek stick game, and fights to put together the case which will help him save the land.

As always, Bowen writes in his terse style, all the expected characters are on board, and the story centers on the Metis culture.

For mystery lovers, this book might be a disappointment. But if you love these characters, and if you appreciate Bowen's style, then you should enjoy The Stick Game.

Friday, April 15, 2016

TALKING TO THE DEAD by Harry Bingham






Harry Bingham's Talking to the Dead is a strange, powerful book, one of the best I've read this year.

At first glance, Talking to the Dead seems to be a routine police procedural. Cardiff, Wales, Detective Constable Fiona Griffiths works herself into the lower rung of a murder investigation.

Someone killed a part-time prostitute Janet Mancini and her six-year-old daughter April. At the scene, police find the credit card of a wealthy man who is missing in an airplane accident.

Police do all the right things. They interview fellow prostitutes, they search thousands of documents, and they work the forensics of the murder scene.

But only Fiona takes a personal interest in the victims. She locates a streetwise social worker. Using information the social worker provides, Fiona works herself to the heart of the case.

Along the way, someone kills another prostitute, Fiona begins to fall in love, a crooked ex-colleague assaults her, and Fiona retreats to her parents' loving home, one of the few places she feels safe.

But all this is the tip of the iceberg. Fiona has a special kinship with the six-year-old victim April. Fiona begins to disassociate, to fall into her long-term mental illness. She begins talking to the dead. (This doesn't happen as you might expect. It is much more powerful than that.)

Her special friend Lev prepares her for the terrifying ending to the story, and Fiona ends up learning something life-altering about herself.

I don't have the words to describe Fiona Griffiths. You must read about her to understand. But there's a warning too. This is a starkly real book. If you aren't comfortable with intimate descriptions of death, you might not be comfortable with Talking to the Dead.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

A MAN CALLED OVE by Fredrik Backman






A quotation from Fredrik Backman's A Man Called Ove--

"Loving someone is like moving into a house," Sonja used to say. "At first you fall in love with all the new things, amazed every morning that all this belongs to you, as if fearing that someone would suddenly come rushing through the door to explain that a terrible mistake had been made, you weren't actually supposed to live in a wonderful place like this. Then over the years the walls become weathered, the wood splinters here and there, and you start to love that house not so much because of all its perfection, but rather for its imperfections. You get to know all the nooks and crannies. How to avoid getting the key caught in the lock when it's cold outside. Which of the floorboards flex slightly when one steps on them or exactly how to open the wardrobe doors without them creaking. These are the little secrets that make it your home."

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Fredrik Backman's A Man Called Ove describes a man you come to love fully in gradual steps, the same way Ove's wife Sonja describes their marriage in the quote above.

The book opens with Ove's employers "retiring" him after a lifetime of work. Six months ago, Ove's wife Sonja had died. She was Ove's light and hope. So Ove decides to commit suicide.

Ove knows who he is and what he believes. Backman says about him--"Ove understood things he could see and touch. Wood and concrete. Glass and steel. Tools. Things one could figure out. He understood right angles and clear instruction manuals. Assembly models and drawings. Things one could draw on paper. He was a man of black and white. And she [Sonja] was color. All the color he had. The only thing he had ever loved until he saw her was numbers."

But Ove's neighbors won't let him commit suicide. They keep interfering with the process. Before the book is over, Ove ends up "bleeding" his neighbor's radiators so they work better, adopting a bedraggled cat, teaching a pregnant neighbor to drive, loaning a ladder to the pregnant woman's husband and then transporting him to the hospital when he falls, and befriending a gay teenager put out of the house by his father.

Ove works to reconcile the father and son. And all the time, he goes to the cemetery, clears the snow off the gravestone and talks to Sonja. Her love compels him. And her memory breaks his walls apart so that finally this reclusive man ends up with his house filled with people.

Backman sprinkles A Man Called Ove with common sense wisdom. A few (of many) examples--

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"A time like that comes for every man, when he chooses what sort of man he wants to be. And if you don't know the story, you don't know the man."

"They say the best men are born out of their faults and that they often improve later on, more than if they'd never done anything wrong."

"It is difficult to admit that one is wrong. Particularly when one has been wrong for a long time." [He says this after finally reconciling with his best friend. They had a running feud because Ove thought everyone should drive a Saab, and the neighbor drove a Volvo. There was more to it than that, but their argument became an almost lifelong alienation.]

"For the greatest fear of death is always that it will pass us by. And leave us there alone."

And . . .

"Something inside a man goes to pieces when he has to bury the only person who ever understood him. There is no time to heal that sort of wound."

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A Man Called Ove was the April choice for our local book club.