Friday, September 30, 2016

Finding a hit and run on the Inside Passage

Carl Brookins' new mystery/thriller opens tranquilly enough. Michael Tanner, a successful Seattle public relations executive, his wife, and a friend are sailing the Inside Passage, the waters separating Washington State from Canada. Fog rolls in and rather than turn their chartered sloop back, Michael continues sailing. A break in the fog abruptly reveals an 80-foot, multi-deck yacht riding motionless in the water. Michael's wife gives a tentative hail, but the yacht responds only by starting its heavy diesel engines and disappearing into the fog.

Only to reappear four pages later to ram the sloop, sinking it, killing Michael's wife and friend, and almost killing him. Why? Who would do such a thing?

Unfortunately for Michael, the Canadian Coast Guard does not believe his story—and there's not much they could do about it even if they did. Michael cannot describe the yacht in any detail; he saw only three letters of the name—GOL—on the stern as it vanished into the fog. The rest of the book is the story of Michael's recovery from the incident, his growth as a person, and—spoiler alert—his final confrontation with the killer yacht.

The book is interesting because Michael is not a detective and not, when the book opens, even much of a sailor. He's a workaholic pr man with partners running a Seattle agency. Not only is he on his own in attempting to identify the yacht, but, given the small world of fishermen and boatmen who live on the islands and along the coast of the Inland Passage, he's known as the guy who lost his sloop, killing his wife and friend. If the bad guys who ran him down think he's too nosy or getting too close to identifying their boat, they will have no compunctions about killing him.

Brookins, an "avid recreational sailor" writes vividly about sailing and the natural world. Here's Michael attempting to make a safe harbor in a storm:

"The compass needle swung wildly as the cruiser smashed through another big wave and the propeller raced as the wave dropped below the stern.The boat headed down into another trough and the sea rose, curling over to meet him. Tanner's knuckles turned white as he gripped the wheel tighter and he realized he was staring up into a huge wind-ravaged wave. The launch shuddered under Tanner's feet when the big wave slammed into the bow. Water sluiced down the forelock and rose against the windscreen. The light in the cabin turned sickly green. He glanced sternward to see the deck awash with foaming seawater."

While the book held my interest as Michael overcame one challenge after another, I do have reservations. Brookins shifts point of view, often, in my opinion, unnecessarily and in a few places with no transition to warn the reader we're now in another character's head. A passage like this halfway through the book drives me wild:

"[Tanner] had only vague memories of the three figures he'd glimpsed on the bridge that awful day. He couldn't identify any of them. Although he didn't know it, Tanner owed his life to that inability. The crew member who had fired the shotgun into the cabin of the Queen Anne [Tanner's sloop] was the same man who jostled Tanner in the small Tacoma bar. The man swore later to his captain that there'd been no glimmer of recognition from Tanner during their brief encounter. The other crew member who'd watched them agreed." These sentences are the author stepping into the story to explain a point to the reader; if something needs to be explained, the original passage needs to be rewritten.

And because we do have access in a few places to the thoughts and motivations of the bad guys, it makes the reason for their original act—running down the Queen Anne—a frustrating and open mystery. All we need know is that they were doing something they shouldn't; as I read the book it seems the original criminal act was unprovoked.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed The Inside Passage enough that I am sending it along to a sailing friend with a note that he should steer clear of mysterious giant yachts that suddenly loom out of the fog.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

What you'll find in "The Boy in the Suitcase"

On the first page of The Boy in the Suitcase a Danish mystery/thriller by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnette Friis, an unidentified female character manhandles a heavy suitcase into a
secluded spot in an underground parking garage. When she opens the case she founds a boy, "naked, fair-haired, rather thin, about three years old." The boy is alive but does not speak a language the woman recognizes. The rest of the book is the story of the Danish woman, Nina Borg, who finds the boy; the boy's Lithuanian mother, Sigita; the rich man who wants the boy; and the really bad man who put the boy into the suitcase.

We know fairly early in the book who the bad guy is. We don't (I didn't) really understand the dimensions of the plot until the end of the book. For most of the pages we follow Nina as she attempts to discover the boy's identity; Sigita as she attempts to learn what happened to her son; and the bad guy who leaves bodies and mayhem in his wake.

According to the book jacket, The Boy in the Suitcase won "Denmark's prestigious Best Thriller Award." As I suggested above, the book does start with a bang. There's then what amounts to a flashback to take the reader up to the point where Nina manhandles the suitcase and finds the boy. Who is he? What is he doing in the suitcase? And where is the friend who asked Nina to pick up the case in her place? Anyone who's read more than one mystery knows the friend is now dead. 

Aside from jumping from one point of view to another in virtually every chapter, which can become distracting, my major complaint about the book is the character of the main character: Why doesn't Nina go to the police? She's a law-abiding Danish citizen, so she has no fear of winding up in the clink herself. Once she's discovered the body of her friend, she knows she's dealing with dangerous people. I wanted to shout at her more than once: GO TO THE POLICE! NOW!

Nevertheless, if the reader finds Nina engaging and sympathetic—and to be fair, she has her own baggage and is in an extraordinary situation—she will, I suspect, enjoy The Boy in the Suitcase if only to see how the bad guy gets his comeuppance. Which is why I read mysteries in the first place.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

There are fascinating doings in Sisterland

I picked up Sisterland, Curtis Sittenfeld's fourth (2013) novel because I like what she's written in The New York Times Book Review where she's a regular contributor, and because I thoroughly enjoyed her recent story in The New Yorker, "Gender Studies."

I liked Sisterland so much and feel Sittenfeld's writing has so much to teach me that I've now read the book twice. The next time, I'll go through it with a highlighter, marking the sentences and paragraphs that speak to me especially. So what do I like about it?

The story is told in the first person, Daisy, "Kate," twin sister of Violet. We never leave Kate's perspective, never have to hop into another character's head to understand what's going on. This is not as easy to do as Sittenfeld makes it appear.

Most of the action takes place in St. Louis, a setting that feels both appropriate for the story and fresh. Indeed, this particular story almost has to be set in St. Louis.

The characters feel authentic and fully realized. Even the twins' ability to "sense" future events and predict their occurrence seems plausible. Sittenfeld does not insist on their paranormal talent, so the skeptical reader (me) is able to attribute a scientific(?) account for the events the twins predict. I.e., Sittenfeld has it both ways.

Although Kate is a mid-30s, middle-class, white, mother of two young children, a full-time homemaker, the wife of a Washington University college professor, and utterly average from the outside, Sittenfeld gives us enough of her history, which helps us intuit some of her current thoughts and actions, enough to make her relationships and actions interesting and credible. While the novel's structure is not straighforwardly chronological, neither is it confusing.

Finally, the writing is extraordinary without calling attention to itself. Here is Kate on the second page of Chapter 1. She's just had lunch with her twin sister Violet, "Vi," who has told her not to leave a big tip because she didn't like the food. Kate says:

—"You of all people should realize that's not the waitress's fault." For years, all through our twenties, Vi had worked at restaurants. But she was still regarding me skeptically as I set down my credit card, and I added, "It's rude not to tip extra when you bring little kids." We were at a conversational crossroads. Either we could stand. I could gather the mess of belongings that accompanied me wherever I went—once I had been so organized that I kept my spice rack alphabetized, and now I left had an bibs and sippy cups in my wake, baggies of Cheerios, my own wallet and sunglasses—and the four of us could head out to the parking lot and then go on to drop Vi at her house, all amicably. Or I could express a sentiment that wasn't Vi, in  her way, asking me to share?

Consider all the information packed into that paragraph: particulars about Kate, her current situation, her age, her relationship with her twin, her attitude toward tipping, and more. For example, "baggies of Lucky Charms" would have said something different about her from "baggies of Cheerios."

Here, a few pages later, is Kate seeing Vi on a television screen in a local news program during which Vi forecasts a major earthquake is soon to convulse St. Louis:
—Seeing her, I flinched. The big, loose purple tunic she wore had seemed unnoteworthy at the Hacienda [the restaurant where they'd had lunch] but now appeared garish, and even if she hadn't been in the same clothes, I'd have guessed she hadn't slept the night before: There were shadows under her eyes, her face was puffy, and she didn't have on makeup. I had never been on television myself, but I knew you at least needed foundation.

One final extended quote because Sittenfeld writes so well about children, who in Sisterland play small but significant roles. Amelia is the three-year-old daughter of Hank, a neighbor; Rosie is Kate's two-year-old.

—Outside, Amelia and Rosie skipped in front of us, and Hank was beside me as I pushed Owen in the stroller. Amelia slapped her palm against a lamppost, and when Rosie mimicked the gesture exactly, I thought, as I often did, that Amelia and Hank were like mentors to Rosie and me: Amelia was always beckoning Rosie toward the next developmental stage, while Hank was the person who'd most influenced me as a parent. It was from Hank that I'd learned to give Rosie her own spoon when I'd fed her jar food, so that she wasn't constantly grabbing the one I was using. Hank had told me to put Triple Paste on her when her diaper rash got bad ("Way more than you think you need, like you're spreading cream cheese on a bagel," he's said), and to buy a Britax car seat after she outgrew her infant seat, and to go to the Buder library for the best story hour . . .

Because I admire Sisterland so much, I'm reluctant to try Sittenfeld's three earlier novels: American Wife, Prep, or The Man of My Dreams. I'm afraid they'll disappoint as works of a novelist still maturing. Rather, I'm looking forward to the next fiction she publishes. I selfishly hope it will not be a long wait.