It’s a Mystery: Takedown Twenty, by Janet Evanovich

Takedown Twenty (Stephanie Plum, #20)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Apparently the Stephanie Plum series does not merit “serious” book reviews from the NY Times et al, so its thousands of fans must make do with amateur ones. Having read entries 1 through 20, I must say that some are better than others. But what keeps me coming back to check in with Steph, aka Cupcake or Babe, is the humorous slapstick approach that never fails to bring at least a few LOLs. In outing twenty, Stephanie is still agonizing over her choice of job ( tired of being shot at, having her cars blown up, etc.), her ongoing attraction to her almost-fiance Morelli and her sometimes employer, sometimes savior Ranger, and her generally disorganized lifestyle. Anyone looking for a modicum of common sense or realism in these books won’t find even an atom of that here, but a rollicking ride through ridiculous situations can be fun too. In Twenty, still set in Trenton, of course, Steph tackles a roaming giraffe whom no one else seems to notice, the mafioso Uncle Sonny whose jumped bail on murder charges, Morelli’s Sicilian grandmother who lays several evil eyes on Stephanie, a series of murders in which elderly women end up in dumpsters, and various and sundry other sources of mayhem. If Stephanie simply invested in a few sessions with a good therapist, she could probably resolve her personal issues, but then, what would there be for author Evanovich to write about?

It’s a Mystery: Bury Your Dead, by Louise Penny

Bury Your Dead (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #6)

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In this sixth novel in the series, Inspector Armand Gamache has a lot on his emotional plate. Following a harrowing case in which he and assistant Jean-Guy Beauvoir ( who is also Gamache’s son-in-law) nearly lost their lives, they’re both physically and psychologically drained. Gamache, as is his wont when things go wrong, blames himself, and at the urging of his wife, takes refuge with his now-retired mentor, Emile Comeau, in the beautiful city of Quebec. Beauvoir, going stir crazy in recovery, wants some work to do, so Gamache assigns him to do some further investigation into a now-solved murder, in the idyllic village of Three Pines. The book integrates, in alternating chapters, the three storylines, each of which has its own series of jolting discoveries. To my great enjoyment, Armand’s thread incorporates a lot of Quebec’s 18th century history, particularly the still- unsolved mystery of where the city’s founding father, Samuel de Champlain, was buried. Political issues, such as anti-English sentiment and Quebecois separatism, also play an important role.

Author Louise Penny is one of those few gifted writers who can meld plot threads seamlessly, making each relevant to the others. The appeal of her protagonists and her skills at breathing life into each of her settings, are now legendary among her followers. Though murder is at the center of her plots, her books are more character studies than police procedurals, though procedure is certainly given its due. All this is true of Bury Your Dead, a title that has meaning on several levels. This is an intricate, intelligent novel, though-provoking and disturbing on several levels, and surprisingly poetic in places. I won’t offer a plot synopsis, for fear of inadvertently spoiling it. Just read it – you won’t be disappointed.

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It’s a Mystery: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Gone GirlFatal attraction, two ways

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nick and Amy approached their marriage in the same way most Americans do, by trying their hardest to please each other and submerging any personality traits or personal desires that might be viewed as negative. According to comedian Yakov Smirnoff, who also has a master’s degree in psychology, “Falling in love is a chemical reaction. But it wears off in a year. That’s why you need a strong line of communication… which includes laughter.” Like many couples, Nick and Amy never considered the possibility that the chemistry would change, and when it did, they checked out of their relationship without ever trying to adapt. This story is related by two supremely unreliable, self absorbed narrators, Nick and Amy themselves, who haven’t the faintest clue how to confront and resolve their problems. When they reach the end of the rope during their 5th year together, Nick plunges into a secret affair and Amy devises a diabolical way to teach her husband the lesson she believes he needs to learn.

The plot of Gone Girl is a like the one in the old movie, Fatal Attraction, but Amy is a much smarter avenger than the Glenn Close character. As in Fatal Attraction, Amy has ample reason for her fury against her lying, cheating husband, which is certainly justifiable, but she goes way over the top in the way she expresses it without ever recognizing her own role in their crash and burn. Throughout the first three quarters of Gone Girl, Amy is far and away the crazy one. Then the pathology deep in Nick’s character begins to assert itself, and by the denouement, many other people undeservedly become collateral damage in their catastrophe. This is a creepy, amoral couple who clearly deserve each other. Gillian Flynn handles all this mayhem with flair and elegance. Her presentation of Nick’s take on the marriage when juxtaposed with Amy’s makes the reader wonder if she’s talking about the same relationship; there is not a breath of honesty to be found. And the suspense, which at times is agonizing, never comes to an end , not even when the book does. What starts out slowly becomes un-put-downable. Noir fiction at its best.

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It’s a Mystery: Fruitful Bodies, by Morag Joss

Fruitful Bodies

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The posh Sulis Clinic is the setting for the third Sara Selkirk mystery, all of which take place in the ancient spa city of Bath, England. A renowned cellist, Sara  spots her former music teacher amongst the audience at one of her concerts, and is dismayed to discover that now elderly Prof. Cruikshank has become a down and out alcoholic. Sara arranges for treatment at the Sulis, and becomes drawn to its charismatic director, Dr. Golightly. How the murder of a Japanese scientist becomes entangled with the affairs of the medical clinic sets the plot into action, and when a second death occurs among its patients, Sara, as is her wont, can’t resist trying to assist Andrew, the Chief Inspector who is now her lover.

As a mystery, Fruitful Bodies is interesting enough, but Sara should realize by now that her attempts to be helpful are merely inept meddling. As usual, she stumbles upon a clue that happens to be valuable, and in doing so, puts her own life in danger. This is a trope much overworked by many mystery writers, and it might be refreshing if there were no serendipitous escape. I’d like to see more about her own career, and would also like to see both Sara and Andrew take a more mature route to establishing their relationship. As things stand, I don’t see how that can happen, and for now, it’s the historic setting and the competent prose that keep me returning to this series.

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It’s a Mystery: The Black Country, by Alex Grecian

The Black Country (The Murder Squad #2)
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A little girl has discovered a human eyeball in a bird’s nest in the coal mining village of Blackhampton, where a local couple and their little son have disappeared. Baffled and alarmed, the local constable summons assistance from Scotland Yard, which assigns Inspector Walter Day and his sergeant, Nevil Hammersmith, to the case. They duo arrives by train in the midst of a blizzard, but the deepening white blanket can’t disguise the grit and grime of the village, where houses are actually sinking into the miles of mine shafts that snake about under the ground. After less than an hour in the pub, where a few of the taciturn villagers have gathered to meet the inspectors, they learn that Blackhampton is also riddled with superstitions and secrets. To make matters worse, a mysterious contagion has infected half of the townsfolk, so many that the church has been turned into a makeshift hospital. Add a couple of sinister American strangers to the mix, and Day and Hammersmith have their hands full.

Author Grecian injects his plot with authentic Victorian atmosphere, and enough menace and mystery to keep the pages turning at a rapid pace. As gritty as its setting, the book is marred only by a somewhat histrionic conclusion, but in the milieu of that village, it works well enough, especially because the characters are so richly developed.

You can’t beat a good English mystery!

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More on Connecticut’s Witch Trials

imageFrom Coastal Connecticut magazine, an article dealing with witch scares in 17th century Connecticut. The author, Tom Sobolesky, interviewed me by phone last Friday, in connection with our upcoming Witches and Tombstones tours at Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum in Wethersfield. As per usual, he didn’t get everything quite right, but here is his take on what actually happened.

Fear of Witches in Early Connecticut

Decades before Salem’s witch panic, the fear of witches (wiccaphobia) in early Connecticut was pervasive and contagious. In fact, the state executed more women accused of witchcraft than anyplace else in the colonies. “One of the hardest things for people to understand today,” Connecticut’s State Historian, Walter Woodward, explained to the Litchfield County Times in 2001, “is how ordinary people feared their neighbors enough to kill them—to really believe that the grumpy old lady across the street worked through the devil. The world was a different place then. It was a very permeable time when people believed in the occult.”

In this boiling atmosphere, nine women and two men were marched to the gallows in Connecticut. Two married couples, including John and Joan Carrington of Wethersfield, were among those to meet the hangman. Documentation of their case is thin, but what exists says that John was arrested and fined for bartering a gun with a Native American. Their indictment is similar to many of the time: “thou hast entertained familiarity with Satan . . .”

They were hung in Hartford in 1651.

Before the Carringtons, Mary Johnson of Wethersfield was whipped for theft and, in 1648, confessed to murdering a child. Her indictment included licentiousness, in addition to familiarity with Satan. While in prison, Johnson had a baby boy. Since she didn’t meet the hangman’s noose until 1650, some historians speculate that the baby’s father was the jailer’s son. Linda Pagliuco, a guide at the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum in Wethersfield, who has done a lot of research on the era, conveyed this theory. That son of the head jailer consented to raise the child, and this was agreed to by the court.

The topic of the Wethersfield witches will be covered in a Witches and Tombstones Tour hosted by Webb-Deane-Stevens on October 24 & 25. Reservations are advised.

In that era of fear, neighbors didn’t trust neighbors and looked down on you even if you were struggling. “People were not charitable,” says Pagliuco. “They didn’t like for their neighbor to need charitable assistance.” Many of the women accused were poor. If you were suspected of witchcraft, those neighbors could comprise the jury. If the court’s verdict didn’t call for punishment, the neighbors themselves might inflict it.

The colonial governor, John Winthrop Jr., also believed in witchcraft, but was more skeptical of the specific allegations and thought that the lax evidentiary court standards of that time were insufficient. A newly released book, Prospero’s America: John Winthrop, Jr., Alchemy, and the Creation of New England Culture, 1606-1676, by Walter Woodward, traces how Connecticut’s settlement was influenced by witchcraft, religion, local tribes and more.

“Winthrop was a man ahead of his time,” Pagliuco says. “He dabbled in magic and alchemy,” – things that would make women suspicious. But because he was from a prominent family, he would not be targeted.

The colonists’ attitudes about religion and witchcraft are in sharp contrast to the positions attributed to the present day practice of Wicca. According to wicca.com, “Satan, or the devil, has absolutely no place in Wicca or witchcraft,” and it, “does not engage itself in criticizing the beliefs of other people…Witches do object to religions that attempt to suppress the religious beliefs of others.”

Pagliuco likens today’s bullying to the witch paranoia, saying people are called names or harassed for being perceived as different, just as women were back then. “If you become unpopular, something bad could happen to you. If you’re different and make someone mad,” they may come after you. “If you look at the mechanisms, it’s similar but with a different vocabulary.”

Resources for Further Study

A full list of those accused of witchcraft in colonial Connecticut (and their verdicts) is contained in a report by the Office of Legislative Research, 2006-R-0718. Other sources to research the history of the state’s witchcraft hysteria can be found on the state library website.

A full transcript of the 2008 Judiciary Committee hearing on Senate Joint Resolution No. 26 can be found within this link – (note: you have to scroll about ⅔ of the way through to get to the portion on witchcraft). Copies of supporting documents that were submitted to the committee, including written requests for forgiveness from several present day descendants, can be found here. Included are charts tracing the lineage of two of the descendants, and a brief by UConn history professor, Lawrence Goodheart.

Suggested books on this topic include, Witchcraft Trials of Connecticut, by R. G. Tomlinson, and The Devil on the Shape of a Woman, by Carol F. Karlsen

It’s a Mystery: The False Friend, by Myra Goldberg

The False FriendThe False Friend by Myla Goldberg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A few years back a book was published about “mean girls”, the queen bees of junior high who are granted the power to decide who’s cool and who’s decidedly not. When 30 year old Celia Durst, now living and working in Chicago, notices a VW bug on the street, memories of her BFF, Djuna, and her early death, come flooding over her. Accompanying the memories are an acute sense of guilt, for Celia feels responsible for that long ago death. She immediately books a flight home to upstate NY, where she hopes to atone for her actions by confessing to her parents and the friends from her junior high clique. But no one believes her; their memories of the incident don’t match Celia’s.

The False Friend is about a woman’s search for the truth about who she was and who she now is. Narrated from Celia’s point of view, her slow and painful discovery about the child she really was opens questions about the slippery nature of memory and the motives for and the ways in which we wallpaper over the flaws in our own personalities. Celia is the only truly vivid character in the book, though Djuna’s mother comes close. The others, including her too good to be true, all-American boyfriend and her clueless parents, are basically window dressing. Some of the scenes are disturbing, even chilling. Ms. Goldberg is spot on in her portrayal of the social life and behaviors of 11 year old school girls. When the story approaches its close, it comes in the form of an imperfect ending, as imperfect as life itself, and for that reason, it’s very real.

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