It’s a Mystery: The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

 

The Secret History
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Richard Papen is chronically depressed, a loser in his own eyes. Penniless, he leaves his native California and his dismissive parents for Hampden College in New Hampshire, where he hopes to reinvent himself. Still very much a fish out of water, his knowledge of the language of ancient Greece eventually comes to the attention of the school’s elite, a group of five wealthy students who study all things Greek under the tutelage of distinguished scholar Julian Delgado. To Richard’s astonishment and delight, he’s invited into this exclusive coterie. Soon, as a result of the mythology and philosophy in which the students become immersed, one of the group will die at the hands of his fellows. This is the secret. As narrator, Richard’s job is to guide readers along on the journey that leads to murder and its inevitable tragic aftermath. This is the history.

The Secret History owes much to such classic forerunners as Crime and Punishment, Brideshead Revisited, and Lord of the Flies, as well as the body of Greek Mythology. To the credit of its author, however, this mystery cum coming of age tale is no mere derivative.

This is an accomplished first novel. Yes, it has its problems. The plot, though certainly compelling, is not complex enough to warrant nearly 600 pages, and it drags in places toward the middle. Readers who expect to “like” the characters will probably not like The Secret History; while they each possess a level of intellectual brilliance, morally they are bankrupt. Self-appointed elitists, the totality of their self absorption will ruin them all. Except for Richard, whose self-contempt paralyzes him to the point that he watches their actions as though watching a game or a movie. But Ms. Tartt is spot on in her portrayal of the 1980’s texture of life at a small town college during a snowy winter, well enough to invoke some nostalgia for my own college days. While revealing the secret in the prologue saps the story of suspense, knowing what will happen evokes a strong sense of dread that grows as the plot plays out, rather like watching a snake from a distance when you know it might strike. Rather like we do whenever any heinous act splashes itself across our television screens.

Fascinating work by a talented writer. Can’t believe I didn’t read it earlier.

It’s a Mystery: W is for Wasted, by Sue Grafton

W is for Wasted (Kinsey Millhone #23)

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

W is for Wasted is the 23rd in the Kinsey Millhone series. Twenty third! While most series and their characters grow stale after a while, that’s far from the case with Kinsey. To say Sue Grafton has honed her craft is an understatement. Among her many awards are the Grand Master Award from Mystery Writers of America, and Bouchercon’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Over the years, I’ve read and enjoyed novels A through V, but W is her masterpiece.

Kinsey’s now 38, still unattached, still living the simple life with few encumbrances. And it’s still the 80’s in her home town of Santa Teresa, CA. As the book opens, she’s asked to identify a dead homeless man who carried her name and number in his pocket, but she’s never met him before. Since she’s between cases, Kinsey’s always active curiosity spurs her to find out what she can about the man. She also learns of the death of a sleazy PI whom she did know but didn’t like or trust. Too much free time can be a dangerous thing when you’re K.M.

Author Grafton incorporates the usual stock characters, whom her readers have come fondly to know well, and adds some interesting new ones, especially Ed the cat, some heretofore unknown cousins, and a trio of homeless people who lead her on quite an adventure. This is an intricate plot written on several levels with several disparate threads, and it’s a joy to observe how deftly Grafton is able to consolidate them by book’s end. It’s impossible to decide whether plotting or characterization, dialogue or description, is her outstanding forte, she’s so good at them all. If you like mysteries and haven’t yet had the pleasure of meeting Kinsey Millhone, treat yourself to W is for Wasted. It’s not necessary, though it is fun, to read this series in order. Sue Grafton’s Grand Master and Lifetime Achievement Awards, and all the others she’s been presented over the years, are richly deserved.

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It’s a Mystery: Sacrifice, by S. J. Bolton

SacrificeSacrifice by S.J. Bolton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The British Isles are replete with folklore, and in the remoteness of the Shetland Islands, natives still tell tales about the Trows, little grey men who fear iron, love silver, and reside in the rolling hillsides. For their race to continue, the Trows must mate with human females. S. J. Bolton, whose given name is Sharon, builds her debut mystery around these legends to great effect.

Tora Hamilton is an OB/Gyn who relocates with her husband, who was born there, to the Shetlands. She enjoys her job at the local hospital, but finds island life rather isolating, especially when her husband’s off on one of his frequent business trips. It’s never been easy for Tora to make friends, and she still hasn’t achieved her dream of motherhood. She gets the shock of her life when she unearths the corpse of a woman in the peaty pasture where she rides her horses. With horror, she discovers that the woman, definitely not a prehistoric bog body, has a hole in her chest where her heart used to be. Equally disturbing, there are strange runes carved upon the victim’s back. When the autopsy reveals that the woman had given birth shortly before death, Tora is driven to find out what happened to her.

And so the story unfolds. The initial creepiness grows exponentially, as Tora refuses to take the advice of locals to leave well enough alone. It isn’t long before some grisly threats are made, which only serve to strengthen her resolve. Soon she finds herself in a deeply frightening “who do you trust” situation, until one of the policewomen on the case, equally suspicious, befriends her. Ms. Bolton makes effective use of the ambience of the Shetlands, embellishing the natural setting with a mysterious, private maternity hospital, some uncanny personal encounters, a pair of sinister in-laws, and the ever changing sea. All of which lead right up to an edge- of- your- seat, jaw clenching culmination and resolution.

It’s always been difficult for me to accept the suicidal choices that thriller characters make, and the motives attributed to the killers in this book never make total sense either. But Ms. Bolton has been compared as an author to no less than P.D. James, and after reading and experiencing Sacrifice, that seems fair to me.

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It’s a Mystery: Three Strikes and You’re Dead, by Michael A. Draper

Three Strikes and You're Dead;
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Someone is killing baseball superstars. There’s another players strike underway, and the self proclaimed Vindicator wants to teach a lesson to the greedy, overpaid sob’s who are ruining the sport, players and owners alike. Randy Larkin, insurance agent, is basking in the satisfaction of having successfully taken down a cop killer, when news about the baseball murders breaks and grabs his attention. Now Randy starts to think about becoming a real PI, and is itching to tackle this case.

Once you accept the premise that the FBI would actually accept assistance from rank amateurs, Three Strikes and You’re Dead takes on momentum. Working under the supervision of a licensed PI mentor, Randy, his brother Graham, and soon-to-be girlfriend Rosanne soon find themselves hot on the trail. The narration alternates between their efforts and those of the Vindicator and the terrorist who controls him. The feature that most grabbed my attention was the use that the novice investigators made of social media, especially Facebook, by setting up a discussion page about the crime and asking speculative questions of the participants. The plot moves along briskly and reaches its culmination in Grand Central Station.

The author, an online friend and fellow Connecticut resident, provided me with a copy to read and review objectively. I’m glad I did. The decency and unpretentious attitude of Randy Larkin makes him a refreshingly appealing character, and, since this is his second outing in a Mike Draper production, I hope there’s a series in the works.

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It’s a Mystery: A Death in the Small Hours, by Charles Finch

In this sixth entry in the Charles Lenox series, many changes have occurred in his life. For one thing, Charles is now a member of the House of Commons, and finds himself flooded with the demands of his new position. Perhaps more importantly, he and wife Lady Jane are now the parents of Sophie, with whom Charles is charmingly besotted. When chosen to give the opening speech to the Parliament, he decides that this great honor deserves his full attention, and to escape the distractions of London, he takes his family to visit his uncle, who lives in the countryside. But the quiet village of Plumbley will soon besiege Charles with distractions of a different sort, of the type that lead to murder.

Death in the Small Hours is a very mannerly novel, rich with the conventions of upper class Victorian society. The mystery itself is tightly constructed and multi -layered, and Charles is delighted to have the chance to flex his investigative muscles once more.There are plenty of suspects, but little hard evidence, and it isn’t until his uncle is kidnapped that the various threads start to come together in a surprising fashion.

Charles himself is somewhat prissy, in a Poirot-ish sort of way, and Lady Jane is a model Victorian wife and mother. All of the characters, in fact, could have been invented by Agatha Christy herself, such typically English types are they. As a result, the story comes across more as drawing room performance than sharp edged suspense.

Ghost Story: Five Mile House, by Karen Novak

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“I am Eleanor, and I, like this house, am haunted.” So opens Five Mile House. Former detective Leslie Stone is also a haunted woman, plagued by her memories of countless child abduction/murder cases and of  the perp she shot down in cold blood.  She also sees the ghost of the little girl that he killed. Hospitalized for months for a complete emotional breakdown, she finally returns home to a family which, at best, treats her with wariness. Her husband Greg has accepted a restoration job in the remote little town of Wellington, thinking that a brand new start will do them all  a world of good. But Wellington is a very strange place, and from the first few days, Leslie knows something’s amiss; she may not be police anymore, but her skills and instincts are as sharp as ever. In a matter of days, she discovers that a century ago, Eleanor Bly murdered her all of her children at the mansion, before leaping out the tower window. Gwen, the local woman married to Greg’s assistant, befriends Leslie, and tries to recruit her into her Wiccan lifestyle. The town’s only business is a concrete recycling plant, which is run by a coven that has kicked Gwen out. Worst of all, Leslie views a portrait of Eleanor and is horrified to realize that she looks exactly  like her. Is that why the Wellington’s hired her husband?

Five Mile House chronicles the inner turmoil of two women who have been broken by some pretty devastating circumstances. Parts of the narrative are delivered in Eleanor’s own voice, while Leslie’s is related in the third person. It is fascinating to watch how their two individual stories come to parallel each other, although that actualization doesn’t dawn  until midway through the book. Eleanor at one point comments that Leslie isn’t aware of her presence because she is distracted by her own ghosts and demons. But she hopes that Leslie will vanquish and lay to rest the evil that resides in the very timbers of Five Mile House. The final chapters are loaded with frenzied suspense as the fates of these two women resolve themselves. Not all hauntings are supernatural.

This is a fine debut novel that prompts me to pick up Ms. Novak’s subsequent books.

The Classics: The Hand of Ethelberta, by Thomas Hardy

Ethelberta Chickering grew up determined to raise her status in the world, and when the son of the house where she served as governess proposed marriage, she agreed with alacrity. Her mother-in-law is snooty, but when Ethelberta is suddenly widowed while on her honeymoon, she takes the young woman under her wing. When the old lady dies, Ethelberta’s sole means of support is gone, and, frantic about losing her social position, she determines to marry as soon as possible. Granted the use of the family townhouse in London, Berta recruits her entire family, bumpkins all, to pose as her servants until she can snag herself as husband.  She is young, beautiful, and conniving, and has no trouble attracting suitors. The plot thickens.

This is far from Thomas Hardy’s typical moralistic, tragic tale of woe. Subtitled “A Comedy in Chapters”, the novel is not funny in the modern sense of the word,  there are some remarkably droll moments. Rather, it lacks his signature tragic ending. But one of the themes prevalent in most of his work concerns problems of sexuality and marriage, and that is the case in Ethelberta. It also focuses upon Victorian restrictions upon women, and social inequalities, and some critics characterize him as an early feminist in his leanings, which seems to be the case here. Ethelberta is not a vacuous woman, but one torn between her dread of returning to her humble origins and her genuine concerns for the welfare of all the members of her family.  While she does have her flighty side, so do her male acquaintances, and she is determinedly singleminded. Romantic love is a notion that she rejects;  although she is powerfully attracted to Christopher Julian, an impoverished music teacher, she never considers him an acceptable match. In her pursuit of what she views as happiness, she is not unlike many of her modern contemporaries.

Hardy, of course, writes in a 19th century style, with 19th century sensibilities, which in places becomes tedious. But his books revolve around timeless themes, and Ethelberta is no exception. As for the ending, for Hardy, it’s a surprisingly happy one.