Saturday, February 17, 2018

A portrait of the author as a bounder

The four main characters in the cast of Clair Fuller's novel Swimming Lessons are Gil Coleman, the famous author of a best-selling and notorious novel; his younger, Norwegian wife Ingrid; and their daughters Nan and Flora. Supporting cast members include Louise, Ingrid's best friend in university; Jonathan, Gil's best friend, a travel writer; and Richard, Flora's boyfriend. Most of the action is set on a small island off the Dorset coast (actually the Isle of Purbeck), and the book covered is 1976 to the present.

Fuller's structure is interesting. After a brief present-day scene in which Gil, now in his 70s and for reasons that become clear in the course of the novel, falls off a sea-side promenade into the rocks below and ends up in the hospital, the rest of the book alternates between Flora's close third-person point of view and letters Ingrid writes to Gil in June 1992, the month before she disappears. Suicide? There's no note. (She hides the letters in the books with marginalia Gil collects.) Abandonment? Neither we nor the characters never know, which is fine. What's important is what drove her to swim to her death or simply walk away from her husband and daughters and the effect that has had—and continues to have—on them.

Flora hastens to the island followed by Richard and Nan. Tension between the sisters. Nan resents that she had to become in effect nine-year-old Flora when she was only fifteen. Flora is Daddy's Girl; Gil can do no wrong. Richard is impressed that he's able to have sex with a famous author's daughter.

The heart of the novel is the un-mailed correspondence Ingrid writes to Gil at 4:00 a.m. when she cannot sleep. They met at university in London. He was twelve years her senior, a charming, attractive man, her writing teacher who said things like. "Secret truths . . . are the lifeblood of a writer. Your memories and your secrets. Forget plot, character, structure; if you're going to call yourself a writer, you need to stick your hand in the mire up to the wrist, the elbow, the shoulder, and drag out your darkest, most private truth." Gil invites shy, unworldly Ingrid to a riotous weekend party at his house on the island—lots of music, dancing, drink, pot, sex. Ingrid, disregarding all advice and a number of events that should have given her second thoughts, begins enjoy unprotected sex with her professor. She becomes pregnant. The university fires him and expels her.

Ingrid recounts their life together: Nan's birth, a miscarriage, Gil's betrayals, Flora's birth, and more. They scrape by on the island, literally watching the pennies until Gil writes A Man of Pleasure, a book so erotic they do not allow a copy in the house. Nevertheless or because it is so pornographic, it becomes a best-seller and the money and attention pour in—and give Gil new opportunities to fuck script girls and production assistants. Gil is, in large ways and small, a shit.

Ingrid feels helpless, a woman without education or skills, living a tiny life on a tiny island. Flora is not the easiest child (the jam has to be spread exactly to the edge of the toast). Nan is trying to be the Model Child and keep her parents happy. It apparently never occurs to Ingrid that, given the quality of the letters she writes and other significant moments in the book, that she might be a writer herself rather than simply abandon the family. It would not improve her relationship with Mr. Can't-Keep-It-In-His-Pants, but by her last letter she's acknowledged to herself she has no—and may never have had a—loving relationship with him anyway. (But if Ingrid becomes a writer, it would be another book, and my observation indicates how much I believe and am invested in the characters.)

Swimming Lessons is wonderfully well-written.We can see (or infer) why characters do things they themselves don't understand. It illustrates how we justify ourselves to ourselves. One might complain that none of the characters are sympathetic; I would disagree (and why do characters in fiction have to be sympathetic anyway). I do think Fuller tends to pile on at the end of the book, but I also agree the situation demands it. And a two-page envoi leaves the reader (this reader) cheered.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

A wonderful novel in which nothing happens

This is what happens in Rachel Cusk's novel Transit: In the first chapter (they are not numbered) the narrator buys a dilapidated council flat in London. In the next chapter she meets Gerard a former lover and they talk. In the next chapter a builder visits to evaluate the flat's rehabilitation. In the next the narrator visits a beauty parlor to have her hair colored to cover the grey. In the next she participates in a one-night writer's conference at a rural college. In the next the narrator meets with one of her writing students. In the next, she and one of the builder's employees, an Albanian workman, go to pick up cement for the job on her flat. In the next, builders work on the flat and placate the downstairs neighbors who are as horrible as the troll under the bridge in the fairy tale. In the last chapter, the narrator drives to a Wiltshire village to attend a dinner party with her cousin and his new wife.

In other words, nothing happens.

There is no rising action; no climax, even within the chapters; no denouement. Events occur in the chapters, but not enough to call them linked short stories.

So why read it?

Because the writing, the observations, the intelligence are exceptional. Here's a description of the beauty salon in which the narrator is having her hair colored: "By now it was completely dark outside Inside the salon all the lights were on. There was music playing and the droning sound of passing traffic could be faintly heard from the street. There was a great bank of glass shelves against one wall where hair products stood for sale in pristine rows, and when a lorry passed too close outside it shuddered slightly and the jars and bottles rattled in their places. The room had become a dazzling chamber of reflecting surfaces while the world outside became opaque. Everywhere you looked, there was only the reflection of what was already there. Often I had walked past the salon in the dark and had glanced in through the windows. From the darkness of the street it was almost like a theater, with the characters moving around in the bright light of the stage."

It is not flashy writing, not sentences that call attention to themselves. But anyone who has been in a beauty salon or who has walked past a lighted shop in the dark can identify with this description.

Cusk is equally brilliant at describing people: "Amanda had a youthful appearance on which the patina of age was clumsily applied, as if, rather than growing older, she had merely been carelessly handled, like a crumpled photograph of a child. Her short, fleshy body seemed to exist in a state of constant animation through which an oceanic weariness could occasionally be glimpsed. Today the grey tint of fatigue lay just beneath her made-up skin: she glanced at me frequently, her face crinkled against the sun, as if looking for her own reflection."

Cusk has written three nonfiction memoirs and eight novels. Transit the "second book of a precise, short, yet epic cycle." The first was Outline, which I reviewed earlier. Cusk is taking ordinary events (see paragraph 1, above) and writing about them for what you or I would see them as—amazing, phenomenal, memorable if we had the insight to recognize and the art to record.

As a writer, I try to see how she does it. And I'm routinely struck by Cusk's observations about writing. Here she is at the writer's conference reporting another participants talk: "All writers, Julian went on, are attention seekers: why else would we be sitting up here on this stage? The fact is, he said, no one took enough notice of us when we were small and now we're making them pay for it. Any writer who denied the childish element of revenge in what they did was, as far as he was concerned, a liar. Writing was just a way of taking justice into your own hands. If you want the proof, all you had to do was look at the people who had something to fear from your honesty."

Cusk neither debunks nor endorses Julian's point. She says she simply read one of her short stories as her contribution to the evening. She observes, she records, she makes art.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Someone has crucified a Jew in Petticoat Lane

When Will Thomas began thinking about writing a mystery in the early 2000s, he felt that many Victorian mysteries were written by woman and could be classified as "cozies." "I wondered," he writes in an Author's Note in Some Danger Involved, which was published in 2004, "what it would be like to create a more dangerous detective, a shamus, a gumshoe, and to set him down in this world of Queen Victoria and Jack the Ripper."

His detective—or, as he prefers to be identified, enquiry agent—is Cyrus Barker, who speaks Chinese, Yiddish, (and probably more), fights like a ninja, maintains a Japanese-style bath on his London property, employs a French cook and a Jewish butler and general factotum, and offers Thomas Llewelyn a job as an assistant and personal secretary.

At the beginning of the book Llewelyn is just about at the end of his tether. He's a poor boy from a coal-mining town in Wales, but he is exceptional enough to attract the patronage of a lord and to be admitted to Magalen College, Oxford. He has made an unfortunate marriage, his wife of three months has died, and as a consequence of an unfortunate circumstance he has spent nine months in hard labor in Oxford Prison. In a final desperate act, he responds to Barker's advert: " . . . Typing and shorthand required. Some danger involved in the performance of duties . . . " With his next move suicide off Tower Bridge, Llewelyn, to his surprise, is hired.

The first several chapter of Some Danger Involved introduce us to Barker, his household, and his world. The assistant's position includes boarding in Barker's house; an entire new wardrobe; instruction in detecting, self-defense, and shooting; and studying the books Barker has chosen: Methods of Observation and Ratiocination, Implied Logic in Everyday Life, Understanding the Asiatic Mind, and Folk Tales of Old Edo. Llewelyn's predecessor had been killed. In Barker's world, there is always some danger involved.


The mystery proper begins in Chapter 4 when Barker and Llewelyn visit the morgue to inspect the body of a young Jewish scholar who has been murdered and crucified—hung up, in fact, in Petticoat Lane, right in the center of a Jewish market. From the morgue they call on Sir Moses Montefiore, an actual person. He was a British financier and banker. activist, philanthropist, and Sheriff of London. He was born to an Italian Jewish family and donated money to promote industry, business, economic development, education, and health in the Jewish community. In London, he was President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews (thank you, Wikipedia) and—now back to fiction—he charges Barker with finding the scholar's killer.

Montefiore is concerned because at this time, the early 1880s, Ashkenazi Jews were flooding into London from the Pale of Settlement—now Russia, Belarus, Lithuania, Molodova, and much of Ukraine. These are Jewish immigrants who don't speak English, who don't understand British ways, and who are taking jobs away from honest English and Irish working men need to be taught a good lesson. Sir Moses worries that someone or someones may be trying to provoke a pogrom. With no clues from the body or the scene of the crucifixion, Barker and Llewelyn set off to find the murderer.

While I am usually impatient with historical fiction, Thomas was able to engage me in Some Danger Involved. I spotted only one possible (and minor) error. Otherwise I was convinced this is the way London looked, sounded, and smelled in 1884. And Barker is such an interesting character, I was willing to overlook the villain's long speech at the end explaining how and why he did what he did. All in all an exceptionally credible debut mystery.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

An engaging introduction to philosophy

Sophie's World is an interesting hybrid. The subtitle calls it "A Novel About the History of Philosophy." It was written by Jostein Gaarder, a Norwegian philosophy teacher, translated by Paulette Møller, and published in 1994. It begins, "Sophie Amundsen was on her way home from school."

Sophie is almost fifteen years old, lives with her mother in Lillesand, a real small town on the south coast of Norway. Her father is an oil tanker captain and away for long periods of time. On page 4 Sophie receives a mysterious envelope that contains a slip of paper on which is written, "Who are you?" On page 6, another envelope, paper, and question: "Where does the world come from?" On page 8, she receives birthday greetings to a Hilde Møller Knag c/o Sophie. Sophie has no idea who has sent the questions or the greetings.

The questions were sent by Alberto Knox who begins a "Course in Philosophy" printed in separate sanserif typeface to set off the lectures on Democritus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Marx, Darwin, Freud, and the Existentialists. It would be possible to read only the sanserif sections for a decent, if limited, introduction to philosophy.

Because there are any number of decent, if limited, introductions to philosophy available, and because Gaarder wanted to sugar-coat the lessons, he embedded them in a story about Sophie and Hilde. We learn that Hilde also has a fifteenth birthday, lives in Lillesand, and her father is also absent. He is part of a UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon.

Part of the book's pleasure is seeing how the author plays with philosophical concepts "outside" of the lectures. For example, a some point, the reader realizes that Sophie is a fiction that Hilde is reading about—but of course Hilde is a fiction we readers read about. The book's first question, "Who are you" becomes much more interesting. (It reminded me of the Chinese philosopher's question: "Am I a man dreaming I am a butterfly or am I a butterfly dreaming I am a man?")

If you know nothing about philosophy and want a relatively painless introduction to the major figures, the essence of their major theories, and how questions—and the theories—about truth, reality, and consciousness have changed over the centuries Sophie's World  is a good place to start.

If you took a couple semesters of introductory philosophy years ago, the book is a useful review.

If you want to trace the way Gaarder uses different philosophical ideas in novel in which the lessons are embedded, that could give certain readers pleasure.

If you want a couple hours' diversion, however, look elsewhere. Gaarder is a teacher and the point of Sophie's World is to teach. Readers who take the book seriously will learn something.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

A novel that should avoid the Young Adult label

A young friend whose taste in quality writing is impressive gave me Carol Rifka Brunt's debut novel, Tell the Wolves I'm Home. Because the narrator is a precocious fourteen-year-old girl and because she comes to understand some profound life lessons by the last page, I am afraid the book will be slotted into the "young-adult, coming-of-age" ghetto and readers who avoid young-adult, coming-of-age stories (I'm one of them) will miss an insightful and moving experience.

June Elbus lives in Westchester County, north of New York City, with her accountant parents and sixteen-year-old sister, Greta. The girls are the nieces of Finn Weiss, a prominent artist who, although he has shown nothing for ten years, is painting a dual portrait of the girls when the book opens in 1986.

June has no intimate school friends and Greta, for reasons June does not understand, has her own teen-age angst. June is closest to her uncle Finn, her godfather, confidant, and best friend, so she is devastated when he dies of AIDS. Finn does manage to finish the painting, which the family hangs in their living room. After Finn's death a story about him and the portrait—"its current location unknown"—appears in the New York Times. A Sotheby's expert estimates that, based on Finn's past sales and that this is apparently his last work, the painting, titled "Tell the Wolves I'm Home" could sell for $700,000. Or more.

June was not the only person who loved Finn, however. A stranger shows up at Finn's funeral—a stranger to June but not to her mother who says the man is the person who murdered her brother.

As June comes to realize Toby was her uncle's lover. And while she assumes some of her mother's attitude, she slowly, slowly—and plausibly—comes to befriend Toby.

Toby lives in Finn's apartment. Toby and Finn had a life together that June knew nothing about. Toby and June help each other come to terms over their grief at Finn's death—without, of course, letting June's mother know.

In addition to an interesting narrative to pull the reader through, Brunt writes wonderfully well. Here is a quick description of a bank's room in which safe deposit customers can look in their boxes privately: "The room had a rich look about it, with dark red wallpaper that went only halfway up the wall and curvy molding around the ceiling that looked old fashioned. It was like the bank wanted your valuable stuff to feel at home in its new little room, far away from its real home."

I was impressed by Brunt's ability to convey June's grief: "I started to walk away, but then I turned back. I decided to stop even trying to hold back the tears. I decided to stand there under an awning on Madison Avenue and let Toby see me. Let him understand that I missed Finn just as much as he did. And once I started, there was no way of stopping. Everything that had been squashed down and pressed into a hard tight ball int he center of my heart came undone. I stood there, shaking and heaving on Madison Avenue in front of Toby, waiting for him to run away or shove me into a taxi, but he didn't. He stepped in, put his long arms around me, and leaned his head on my shoulder . . . "

Tell the Wolves I'm Home held my interest throughout. And while in retrospect it feels as if fourteen-year-old June is perceptive beyond her years, I didn't feel that while I was reading. While I was reading, I was immersed in June's world, in her perceptions, her experiences, her thoughts—and thoroughly enjoying myself.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Sheriff Longmire fights the weather and crime

Walt Longmire, the fictional sheriff of the fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming, is the creation of Craig Johnson who now lives in a small Wyoming town that would be in Absaroka County if it existed.

Johnson says of his background in law enforcement, "It was a large, metropolitan department in the east, which gave me an insight into the procedural aspects of law enforcement that makes writing this kind of novel a little easier. Walking a beat in a city is very different from sheriffing a county the size of Vermont, but there are similarities. I spent a lot of time with another good friend, Sheriff Larry Kirkpatrick of Johnson County, refitting my experiences to a more rural jurisdiction. I rode around with Larry a lot; herding cattle off the highway with a cruiser is a real talent."

Death Without Company, published in 2006, is the second Longmire mystery; there are now more than 11 and a TV series based on the books.

Among the book's many pleasures: Longmire tells his own story. We never shift point of view to one of the other characters. We have a real sense of his foul-mouthed deputy Victoria (Vic) Moretti, former sheriff Lucian Connally, and Walt's Cheyenne friend Henry Standing Bear. Even the minor characters—an elderly doctor, the Sheriff's Department secretary, a female bank inspector from out of town, and a huge methamphetamine addict—come alive.

Another pleasure: A sense that the novel's winter landscape is exactly as Johnson describes. (Wyoming has barriers ready to block the interstate to all traffic when a blizzard roars across the high plains.) Indeed, the landscape is as important to the novel as any one of the characters.

Finally—although I could go on—Johnson writes wonderfully functional dialogue. Example: Vic asks Walt what he's going to do about dinner:
    "I don't know, maybe go down to the Bee." The Busy Bee was in a small concrete-block building that clung to the banks of Clear Creek through the tenacity of its owner and the strenght of its biscuits and spiced gravy. Dorothy Caldwell had owned and operated the Bee since Christ had been a cowboy. I ate there frequently and, due to its proximity to the jail, so had our infrequent lodgers.
     "I bet she's gone home."
      "I'll take my chances. If worse come to worse, I can always catch the pepper steak over at the Home for Assisted Living."
     She made a face. "That sounds appealing."
     "Better than a plastic-wrapped burrito from the Kum and Go."
     "Boy, you know all the hot spots, don't you?"
     "I have been known to show a girl a good time, yes."

Death Without Company (from a Basque proverb: 'A life without friends means a death without company') gets rolling when an elderly woman dies in the Durant Home for Assisted Living, hardly an unusual or unexpected occurrence. And then the new, young, hotshot medical examiner establishes that she was poisoned.

Walt begins investigating. Why would someone kill a 74-year-old woman of Basque extraction? Who would kill her? What happened to her long-gone husband? Is there any connection between the woman's death and the guy who tries to kill Walt? Between the old woman's death and an attack on her granddaughter? And why would someone tamper with the brakes of the kindly old assisted living home doctor's classic Mercedes?

We follow Walt as he talks to people, runs down leads, and gradually comes to understand the history and the circumstances that led to the murder. All in all, satisfying, complex, and plausible. 

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

A troubled marirage but rewarding book

What can we learn from a failing—failed—marriage?

A great deal when the tensions and stresses and cracks are as clearly explicated at they are in Domenico Starone's short novel, Ties, translated from the Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri.

When the novel begins, Aldo and Vanda in their early 30s have been married for a dozen years. They have two children, Sandro and Anna, and live comfortably enough in Naples. Aldo commutes weekly to his job as an academic/writer/television personality in Rome.

Where Aldo has fallen in love with and is sleeping with a delightful, sexy, nineteen-year-old, Lidia, who accepts him as he is—married with children.

Section I of Ties is a series of letters Vanda writes to Aldo in growing fury and desperation in her attempts to shame him (?), encourage him (?), threaten him (?) to abandon Lidia, to return to the marriage bed, to the family. The novel begins, "In case it's slipped your mind, Dear Sir, let me remind you: I am your wife. I know that this once pleased you and that now, suddenly, it chafes. I know you pretend that I don't exist, and that I never existed because you don't want to look bad in front of the highbrow people you frequent  . . ."

In Section II, forty years after Aldo has returned to Vanda, he reflects on the period when the letters were written: "I certainly didn't hate my wife, I hadn't built up any resentment toward her, I loved her. I'd thought it was pleasantly adventurous to get married when I was so young, before graduating, without a job. I'd felt I was cutting away my father's hold over me and that I was finally in charge of my own life . . . "

It is difficult to write about Ties because part of the pleasure is the book's structure, the way each section grows out of the one before, the way every detail adds to the story and I don't want to give anything away. In her Introduction, Lahiri writes: "The entire structure of this novel, in fact, seems to me a series of Chinese boxes, one element of the plot discretely and impeccably nestled within the next. There is no hole in the construction, no fissure. No detail has escaped the author's attention, like the home of Aldo and Vanda . . . everything is in place neat as a pin."

Until it's not.

It seems to me that, although Ties is set in contemporary Italy, the story is not uncommon, almost banal: two young people marry, have children, and grow apart so that by their thirties they are dissatisfied with their spouses, their children, their lives, or all three and are vulnerable to a new, more fulfilling love. The issue is then what do they do about it? Starone has one answer that conveys not only the troubled marriage but also suggests with literary art and craft the consequences.

Aldo and Vanda may have had a troubled marriage, but Ties is a rewarding novel.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

If you know the situation you know the story

I am not the audience for romance novels so you romance lovers should take this discussion with healthy skepticism or stop reading right now. Pamela Gossiaux's second novel, Mrs. Chartwell and the Cat Burglar, is billed "A Romantic Mystery." It is a romance, but not what most mystery readers would call a mystery (there's no dead body).

Abigail Chartwell, 30 years old, has thick red hair and green eyes. "She was a beautiful woman, and most men couldn't meet her eyes for more than a few seconds before becoming tongue-tied." She was married briefly to her true love, but he was killed six years ago, a death for which Abigail irrationally blames herself and for which she has locked down her emotions. She wears fake glasses, her wedding ring, dowdy clothes, and her hair in a bun, all to discourage any man who might find her attractive as a librarian in the map department of an unnamed city that has a university, a river, and a lot of snow.

Abigail might have lived out her days, guilty, solitary, and emotionally stunted but one night as she happened to work late, Tony Russo, 32, stunningly handsome with thick, curly black hair, a muscular body covered in black spandex, a tantalizing aftershave, and smile that would the coldest heart drops in. Literally. He descends from a skylight into the map department on a rope, intent on stealing a certain map.

Abigail manages to set off the silent alarm (Tony has disabled the rest of the library's security system, an skill he uses to burglarize stores and mansions), but does she describe him and their conversation to her friend, Jimmy the Cop, who arrives? Of course not.

Abigail cannot understand her own feelings. Feelings for this charming, movie-star handsome  burglar. Someone she trusts when he tells her about his dying grandmother and his quest to find a long-hidden painting, one painted more than a hundred years earlier by the internationally famous Antonio Rosso and today worth millions—millions!—a painting of Tony's great-great grandmother who was Antonio's lover for three rhapsodic months in Paris, a painting Antonio's wife tried to destroy (she settled on burning down his studio), a painting Antonio managed to finish before her pregnancy began to show.

And Tony has seen something in Abigail's lovely green eyes that provokes feelings he's never really known. Deep feelings. Feelings that make him think of giving up his side business as burglar and go straight. If he could find the painting, he'd be set for life.

Mrs. Chartwell and the Cat Burglar is the kind of book that to sketch the situation is to give away the story. Will Tony melt Abigail's frozen emotions? Will Abigail help Tony find the hidden painting? Will Tony's grandmother live? Will Abigail and Tony find happiness together with an apt Shakespeare quote?

(The answer to all of the above is yes.)

Of course there are obstacles. In fact, Shakespeare himself gets quoted: "The course of true love never did run smooth." Midway through the novel Tony needs $10,000 to buy a single dose of an experimental cancer drug that might help his grandmother. In a restaurant he meets an older, attractive, wealthy woman with whom he's been intimate in the past to sell her a stolen diamond necklace for the $10,000. Although Abigail generally stays home after work, this evening she goes out to do some grocery shopping and happens to spot Tony and the woman together. Not only talking, Tony actually kisses the woman's hand! "Abigail couldn't peel her own eyes away from the scene. Her heart started pounding, and she felt her stomach churning. She felt like she was going to throw up."

Does she confront Tony the next day? Does she ask him about the woman? When she cuts him dead, does Tony make any connection between his client in the restaurant and Abigail's abrupt change of heart? To ask the questions is to answer. And do they get back together? Silly you; of course they do.

Because, as I said at the beginning, I am not the audience for romance, I cannot say where Mrs. Chartwell and the Cat Burglar might fit on the continuum of superior to godawful. I think it's somewhere in the middle. As the man says, if this is the sort of thing you like, you'll like it.


Monday, December 4, 2017

The book or the movie? Let's see . . . ?

Red Bones is billed as a Ann Cleeves Shetland Island thriller. I would call it a mystery because in a thriller the reader generally knows who the villain is and the hero's task is to thwart him (her) before he assassinates the president, murders the girl, destroys the world, or all three. In a mystery, neither the detective nor the detective know who committed the murder.  

Red Bones begins with a what appears to be an accidental death—the half-drunk hunter who may have fired the fatal shotgun blast has no reason to kill the old lady. A second death midway through the book seems like a suicide, although mystery readers know that the moment a character telephones the detective to say at the end of a chapter, "I've got to talk to you! Not on the phone! I'll meet you tomorrow," you know that character will be dead in the next chapter. So, two bodies in Red Bones.

The BBC has made a series based on the Shetland Island mysteries. For the first time, I read the book and watched the movie so close together I could compare and contrast one with the other. The movie is the same but different, and part of the pleasure is trying to decide why the scriptwriter and movie producers made the changes they made.

For example, most of the book's action takes place on Whalsay, one of the small islands off the east coast of Shetland. Most of the movie's action takes place on Bressay, another small island off the east coast. It seems like a change without a difference; both are windswept, barren, and picturesque.

Jimmy Perez, the inspector, works alone in the book. He has a young female assistant, "Tosh," in the movie. Adding her to the story allows the scriptwriter to create bantering dialogue between the two and gives Perez someone to order around.

The two deaths are handled similarly, an old woman killed at night and a young woman is an apparent suicide. The reader and viewer also learn about the "Shetland Bus," the effort during WWII to take agents and money to German-occupied Norway and bring escapees back. The red bones that turn up in an archeological dig on the murdered old woman's land may be those of a 15th merchant, a Norwegian traitor, or someone else. The discovery of the bones is really the story's inciting incident.

By necessity, the scriptwriter had to condense and simplify Cleeves's story. With a book, one can always go back and reread a key chapter that explains motivation and sequence of events that may not be clear on a first quick reading. Not only are the characters in the movie necessarily less fleshed out (the producers had only two hours to work with after all), the mechanics of the plot are also simplified to the degree that the murderer in the movie is not the same as in the book. That makes for an interesting aesthetic experience regardless of which you encounter first. Because I read the book first, I was disappointed by the movie although I could understand why the scriptwriter made such a basic switch.

Bottom line: Watch the movie first, then read the book. They each offer their own pleasure. Together, the pleasure is, if not doubled, at least significantly increased.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

A complex plot with an unconvincing villain

I have been thinking about the problems I had with A Carrion Death by Michael Sears and Stanley Raynes, writing under the name "Michael Stanley." If you have not read this mystery and think you might, stop reading this right now because it is going to be filled with spoilers. Okay? Stop.

A Carrion Death is set in Botswana and introduces a Gaborone police detective, Assistant Superintendent David Bengu who is large enough and heavy enough to have the nickname Kubu, which means "rhinoceros." The mystery begins when a park ranger and an anthropologist find the remains of a body the hyenas have feasted on. There's enough left to know it was a white male. A tourist who took a wrong turn? Not likely. All the teeth had been knocked out of the skull and one of the arms was missing. So we know the man was murdered and his body dumped. But no white man has been reported missing.

Before the book ends, the bodies pile up: a geologist who works at a diamond mine and suspects smuggling, another geologist from the mine, a blackmailer, the hitman who killed the blackmailer, the heir to the mine, and maybe more (I didn't keep track). There is sculduggery in high places: the mysterious death years before of the man who founded the mining company, video recordings of important people doing naughty things with women not their wives, a letter that seems to suggest an involvement with "blood diamonds," and a plot so complex that when I closed the book could not make sense of all the twists and turns.

There are many things to like about A Carrion Death. Kubu is an appealing character, a responsible husband and devoted son (there's a scene with Kubu, his wife, and his parents). Sears and Raynes obviously love Botswana and dislike what development does to it: "Despite its relatively small size and attempts to avoid excessive environment damage, the Maboane diamond mine complex interrupted the arid vista like a scar. It was an open-pit mine that corkscrewed down, following the kimberlite host rock into the depths. Nearby the crushing, washing, and sorting plant stood waiting . . . " Their scenes involving corporate types in executive offices ring true.

The story hangs on the villain's ability to imitate voices and accents on the phone so well that the listener does not realize he's not talking to, for example, a school chum, someone he knew well enough to be nicknamed "rhinoceros" by him. A separate killer is willing to do the villain's dirty work—and the work is truly dirty—without every having met the person giving the orders over the phone. At one point the villain has to dispose of an inconvenient confederate who is in a luxury hotel in Portugal. When he opens his door to an attractive (female) stranger, he's set upon and his throat slit. Problem solved for the villain, but some readers will wonder how the mechanics of such an assassination can be set up, especially since the villain is just a garden-variety sociopath, not a head of state who can use the secret service. Nor is it clear what the villain gains from all the slaughter. Finally, one of the henchmen manages to escape which may be realistic—or he's being saved for a future book—but given the blood he'd spilled I found his escape unsatisfactory.

A Carrion Death is the first of seven Detective Kubu mysteries. Readers who would like a version of Botswana different from Alexander McCall Smith's might want to start with one of the later books. On the other hand, just because I found the plot of A Carrion Death overly complicated and the villain preposterous does not mean everyone will find them so. Or they will enjoy the book anyway. That there are six more Kubu mysteries tells me that he has some devoted followers. You might try one of them.