It’s a Mystery: A Question of Belief, by Donna Leon

A Question of Belief (Commissario Brunetti, #19)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s always a pleasure to read a novel featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti, a goodhearted man for whom all police work is a question of ethics and justice. Like most of us, however, some of the jobs he’s called upon to undertake are more interesting than others. In A Question of Belief (19th in the series), Brunetti is stranded in the stifling Venetian August, his family vacationing in cool, fresh Alto Adige. As always, the case of the moment involves politics, bureaucratic corruption, and a social issue, in this case, homosexuality. As the book opens, crime on the island also appears to be on holiday, so Brunetti and Ispettore Vianello, his equally compassionate assistant, occupy themselves with nonviolent concerns, such as bribery in court cases and fraud on the part of psychic healers. Coincidentally, a brutal murder occurs, its victim a clerk at the very court they’re scrutinizing.

Donna Leon is equally adept at immersing her readers in the ambience of Venice and plotting an intricate, compelling police procedural. In Belief, for some reason, her focus seems to have been diverted from Brunetti’s case work to the dreadful heat of summer smothering the canals and piazzas. It’s easy enough to enjoy this novel for what it is, though it’s far from Leon’s best. A good summer diversion for us!

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It’s a Mystery: Restless, by William Boyd

Restless

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How many of us believe that we know our own parents? Ruth Gilmartin tutors foreign students in English as a second language in 1970’s Oxford. Now a mom herself, she spend most of her off time caring for her four year old son, except for the one day each week when her own mother, Sally, takes care of him for her. One afternoon, Ruth arrives at Sally’s house to find her in a wheelchair, claiming to have suffered a fall. It’s clear that she’s bothered by something, but Sally’s not talking. Instead, she hands Ruth a manuscript to read when she has the time. This how how Ruth discovers that her mother isn’t Sally Gilmartin at all, but former Russian spy Eva Delectorskaya.

Though Restless has a few minor subplots, most of the novel relates Eva’s story, from her recruitment by British Intelligence in 1941 to her skilled execution of a program of disinformation designed to mislead the Germans. Eva falls into a love affair with her spymaster, the charismatic Lucas Romer, forgetting for a while that his number one axiom is “trust no one”. When one of Eva’s missions goes awry, Romer deems her expendable, and she’s forcer into spending the latter war years constructing another identity for herself in Canada. But Eva has a long memory, and in 1976, recruits daughter Ruth to help her get even.

Restless recreates the seamy, nerve-wracking world of high stakes espionage through Eva’s own experiences. Ruth’s life is not half so interesting, until she’s drawn into that world for a brief time herself. This is an action driven plot, and Eva is the only fully developed character in it. The result is a suspenseful spy thriller with a razor’s edge sort of ending, morally ambiguous but satisfying.

“When I was a child,” writes the narrator, Ruth, “and was being fractious and contrary and generally behaving badly, my mother used to rebuke me by saying: ‘One day someone will come and kill me and then you’ll be sorry’. Now, more than two decades later, she knows why.

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The Death and Burial of Nathaniel Hawthorne

Did you realize that Nathaniel Hawthorne was very hot when he was young? Lucky Sophia, his wife! His image certainly doesn’t fit that of the typical 19th century author. He and Sophia spent a good part of their marriage in Concord, Massachusetts, where they mingled with the literary giants of their place and time. Today the New England Historical Society posted an article on Facebook about Hawthorne’s later years, specifically about his final days. I’ve read a lot about his life, and visited his grave, but did not know the details about his death and funeral. They’re quite amazing, as it turns out! Quite fitting for an author who was so obsessed with all things Puritanical.

During a visit to Salem, MA, where Hawthorne was born (the descendant of a Salem witchcraft judge, but that’s another story), I learned of his friendship, which began at Bowdoin College, with Franklin Pierce, who would become America’s 14th president. Pierce, ever supportive of Hawthorne’s writing career, appointed him as measurer of coal and salt at the Boston Customs House, a job that permitted him much free time to devote to his true calling.

The two men maintained their friendship throughout Pierce’s stormy presidency, with Hawthorne standing by Pierce when many of his friends abandoned him. When Pierce’s beloved wife Jane died, Hawthorne provided much needed support to the grieving ex-president. By this time, Hawthorne’s health was failing, and he decided that a holiday in New Hampshire’s White Mountains might be a panacea. Pierce accompanied him on his travels. On May 18, 1864, they booked into the Pemigewasset Hotel in Plymouth, NH. Before retiring for the night, they shared a cup of tea, and  retired to their adjoining rooms. Worried about his friend, Pierce left the door ajar with a lamp burning low. He awoke around three AM to check on Hawthorne, and when he approached his bedside, Pierce realized that he had stopped breathing.

Hawthorne’s body was moved to Concord for his funeral and burial. The pallbearers who carried him to his grave at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery included Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and John Greenleaf Whittier. Attended at death by a former president, and transported to his grave by America’s literati – was there ever a more noble funeral celebrated in New England? Many of them lie near Hawthorne on Author’s Hill.

It’s a Mystery: Five, A Novel, by Ursula Archer

Five: A Novel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A refinement of letterboxing, geocaching is a popular worldwide hobby that involves using GPS to hide and find small containers holding a logbook and, often, a small object that the finder can trade for another small object of equal value. The location coordinates are provided on a listing website, where finders can post about their hunt.

In Five, the caches contain human body parts. A geocacher, dubbed The Owner by the Salzburg police, dumps a body in a cow pasture, with a sequence of numbers tattooed on her feet. The investigative team, led by Beatrice Kaspary, soon figures out that the numbers are GPS coordinates, and, led by a rookie who’s into geocaching, they manage to make their first gruesome discovery. Along with a bloody hand, the killer provides a riddle, which when solved, will lead the cops to the next victim. And the next… DI Kaspary and her assistant, Florin Wessinger, will come to realize that the victims knew each other, but that’s all they have to go on.

Gritty and suspenseful, Five is a complex mystery with a flawed but personable protagonist. She and Florin make an efficient team, and there are some strong hints that their relationship will develop beyond the professional. When it becomes clear that The Owner is watching her, Beatrice begins to fear for the safety of her children. It’s possible for the reader to narrow down the roster of possible perpetrators, but I wasn’t certain till the end which of the two I suspected was guilty. An original premise with plenty to captivate and entertain those who open the covers of this thriller. It may also encourage some to take up a new hobby!

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It’s a Mystery: Before I Go to Sleep, by S. J. Watson

Before I Go To Sleep

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Before she goes to sleep each night, Christine Wheeler has an inkling about who and where she is. When she awakens next morning, she’ll have no clue. The man who introduces himself as her husband Ben each day tells her that she developed amnesia following a car accident, nearly twenty years ago. He’s pinned some photos to the bathroom mirror as reminders, but Chris is completely dependent upon him, though she’s now well enough to stay home alone while he goes off to his teaching job. But this lack of a sense of self is intolerable to her, and when a psychologist, Dr. Nash, phones to ask her to participate in a memory study, she agrees on condition that he doesn’t inform her husband. By journaling the bits of her past that she agonizingly recovers, Chris begins to form a coherent picture of who she used to be. Soon she realized that, for some reason, she does not totally trust Ben.

Before I Go to Sleep is a harrowing first person account detailing what life is like for a person with no memories. Author S. J. Watson researched the topic by studying the lives of two amnesia victims, and as he follows Christine through her days, the reader experiences pretty much what she does. With the support of only Ben and Dr. Nash, she cannot even trust her own impressions, knowing that paranoia is a side effect of her condition. This brilliantly executed novel is crafted so well that it’s difficult to believe it’s Mr. Watson’s debut novel. Writing with empathy and a surprisingly accurate understanding of the female mind, he takes  what might be a mundane, repetitive narrative and develops it into a first rate thriller. Although the ultimate truth about Christine’s relationship is telegraphed in the text, the other details concerning the story’s resolution are stunning enough to ameliorate that flaw. This is an accomplished and haunting novel, well deserving of the awards it has earned.

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It’s a Mystery: The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith

The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike, #2)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cormoran Strike is a most interesting PI. A former investigator for the Royal Military, he lost a leg in Afghanistan and has now set up shop on his own. He’s tough, certainly, but also fair-minded and personable. He’s also the illegitimate son of a famous rock star. His newest case has been brought to his door by the wife of a pretentious but un-prolific author, Owen Quine, who’s disappeared after the rejection of his much anticipated new manuscript, Bombyx Mori , which translates to Silkworm. Strike is not at all sure that Mrs. Quine can pay, but he accepts the case anyway, and soon finds out that there are plenty of people in the world of publishing who might harbor animosity toward the writer. Bombyx, it seems, is a sort of pornographic allegory in which they all all appear as nasty caricatures of themselves.

The Silkworm is a mystery with literary features, the title itself a metaphor for the rat race of writing and publishing. Cormoran is the name of the giant that the famous Jack killed at St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall. It takes a long time for Strike to discover what happened to Quine, and when he does, life mimics fiction in a very effective fashion. He receives indispensable insights and assistance from his office manager, Robin, who is a PI wanna be who clearly has the right stuff, if only Strike would realize it. Robin’s engagement to the selfish, narrow minded Matthew, serves as a subplot, and leads to speculation about whether Robin and Strike will follow up on the attraction they feel but do not openly acknowledge.
The Silkworm is a suspenseful and engaging, and I read it without knowing that it’s author is actually J. K. Rowling. I’m able, therefore, to review it objectively, and am prompted now to read the prequel, The Cuckoo’s Calling. Rowling clearly did not use up her story-telling abilities on Harry Potter, and she can write for adults quite well.

4 stars because of a bit of a lag in the middle.

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It’s a Mystery: The Cruelest Month, by Louise Penny

The Cruelest Month (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #3)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Canadian village of Three Pines may be idyllic, but it’s not immune from murder. As T.S. Elliott so famously wrote, “April is the cruelest month,” and as Easter approaches, the residents decide to hold a seance to rid their vacant, creepy manor house of the malevolent spirits that have wreaked such havoc among them. It’s a daunting prospect, but something that must be done. One of their number dies of fright, and early the next morning, Inspector Armande Gamache arrives on what has by now become for him a familiar crime scene.

The charm of Louise Penny’s series derives from her eloquent writing style. This woman knows her way around words. She breathes atmosphere into her setting and humanity into her characters, and her plots are always intricate enough to sustain the mystery even after you think you know who did it. Gamache has to be one of the warmest, most ethical and understanding detectives ever invented. His success is due to his principles, one of which is that murder always starts with a secret. Penny doesn’t shrink from illuminating his flaws, however, which makes him all the more human. The murder at the center of The Cruelest Month has him genuinely puzzled, and events during the investigation leave him wondering whom among his team can be trusted. Gamache, of course, eventually prevails, but not without some ingenious plotting of his own. As another famous author, Norman Mailer, once wrote,”In searching for the truth be ready for the unexpected.”

It’s not necessary to read the Three Pines novels in order, but that’s the way to get the most out of everything that Penny does so well.

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