It’s a Mystery: Surrender, New York, by Caleb Carr

Surrender, New York

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Disgraced criminologist Dr. Trajan Jones, formerly of the NYPD, has set up shop with his business partner/friend, Dr. Mike Li, in the village of Surrender in upstate New York, where the duo teaches online forensic science courses and takes on private cases for investigation. Trajan bases his methods on those of Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, protagonist of author Carr’s fine breakout novels, The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness. Having lost a leg to cancer in his youth, Jones has psychological issues of his own and must deal with constant pain and the possibility of relapse. As a character, he shares much in common with Sherlock Holmes, including the annoying traits of arrogance and irascibility. As the novel’s narrator, Trajan is also prone digressing into lengthy lectures about science, literature, and human foibles. Mike Li, on the other hand, is relatively free of heavy baggage, and is much more genuine colleague than Dr. Watson ever was, though he does offer a sense of humor and steady emotional support and when needed.

The complex plot is replete with other colorful characters, most notably the irrepressible, teenaged “consulting detective Lucas, and Marcianna, the beloved cheetah that Trajan rescued from an abusive petting zoo. Both provide relief from the intensity of Trajan and Mike’s current case, which involves the deaths of a series of “throwaway children”, homeless kids left behind when their parents simply deserted them. It soon becomes clear that the Empire State’s senior politicos understand the depth of this problem but simply don’t care, preferring to cover it up. Trajan and Mike determine to rectify this situation no matter whom they must take down and how much resistance they encounter.

Plot, setting, and characters blend well together, but at times not well enough to overcome the novel’s shortcomings. One is its heavy use of profanity, especially the f word, which peppers every chapter regardless of who is talking. Trajan is also overly fond of the word “indeed” and the use of convoluted sentences when simpler and shorter ones would do just as well. Finally, the book is just too long, and the many suspenseful and/or gruesome scenes are interspersed with passages overloaded with detail.

Nonfiction Worth Reading: Living in Italy – The Real Deal, by Stef Smulders

Living in Italy: the Real Deal - How to survive the good life

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Italy, one of the world’s most beautiful places, is admired for many things – La Dolce Vita, pasta, wonderful wines, passionate people, and wonderful art. There is one particular institution, however, that is deeply puzzling to most non-Italians – its governmental bureaucracy. In Living in Italy, Stef Smulders relates the story of how he and his husband, Nico, relocated from the Netherlands to Lombardy to start a B&B. The grandfather of books like this is, of course, Peter Mayle’s bestseller A Year in Provence, published in the 70’s, and in 1996, Frances Mayes had similar success with Under the Tuscan Sun. Ex-pat narratives by now form a large genre of their own, and Living in Italy by Stef Smulders is a worthy addition to the category.

In 1998, Stef and his husband Nico moved to Lombardy from their native Netherlands to start a B&B. Being members of a very organized society, they arrived at their new home in Montecalvo with the assumption that the renovation of their new house would proceed efficiently. By the end of their first week, their belief in Murphy’s Law was firmly cemented. Living in Italy is a delightful series of vignettes, written with wry humor and an unpretentious air of befuddlement. How could all these snafus keep happening? It probably takes an Italian to understand. But for a year, Stef and Nico survived within the confines of their kitchen, surrounded by the noise, dirt, and chaos racket being carried out by a crews of artisans whose work ethic is decidedly, shall we say, casual. Forays into the intricacies of obtaining official documents and licenses (coda fiscale) are equally nerve wracking. Read these chapters and you feel as though you’ve personally known estate agent Olito, architectural engineer Cassini, and builder Torti. But Stef also writes engagingly about the local culture, on such topics as wine tasting, using public toilets, cooking lessons, and exploring the hardware store.

All’s well that ends well, and after a harrowing swimming pool installation, Nico and Stef are finally ready open the doors to Villa I Due Patroni. One of the pleasures of reading about their experiences, one that was not available for Provence or Tuscany, is visiting the property’s website to see the results of all their struggles. If I ever travel to Lombardy, that’s where I want to stay.

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It’s a Mystery: The Bookseller, by Cynthia Swanson

The Bookseller

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Kitty Miller is a trailblazer. Nearing middle age during the 1960’s, she’s unapologetically single, the co-owner of her own Denver book store, and enjoying her simple, independent lifestyle. True, her social life has dwindled and her business is struggling because the new mega shopping centers have drained business traffic from downtown. But Kitty and co-owner Frieda are life-long best friends, and life is good. Then, Kitty finds herself spending her sleep time in another world, where, as
Katharine, she’s married to the hunky Lars and raising their family of triplets. Soon she can’t quite distinguish which of her lives is “real”, and sets out to investigate how her memories and experiences in both might just intersect.

The plot of The Bookseller proceeds with alternating chapters, first in one world, then the other. The general social tone of the early 1960’s is captured in both settings, before Beatlemania changed so many things. Kitty wears slacks, for example, though many women frown upon that. Her parents are conventional, supportive, and homebodies. There isn’t much detail about the bookstore, however, and not much talk about books, so the title doesn’t seem quite apropos. The pace is slow until the final third of the book, when Kitty/Katharine begins trying to pin down the facts. One of Katherine’s sons is presented as autistic, this in the days before special education, and while some of his problems are handled realistically, others are glossed over. This is a book loaded with little mysteries, and the denouement occurs abruptly, with an outcome opposite to the one I expected. The cause of the entire episode is left for the reader to infer.

A promising debut novel.

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It’s a Mystery: The Long Way Home, by Louise Penny

The Long Way Home (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #10)

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Long Way Home is Louise Penny’s tenth Chief Inspector Gamache novel. The pace has changed in more than one way, for Armand has retired from heading the homicide unit of Quebec’s Surete, moving with wife Reine-Marie (I always smile at her name; in some sections of the US, she’d probably be called “Queenie”.) from Montreal to Three Pines, the picture-book village in which much of this series is set. Armand is struggling to recover from PTSD, and wants nothing more than peace, good food, and the company of family and friends. But if that were to happen, there would be no tenth novel….

One of the prequels to The Long Way Home, A Trick of the Light, ended with the separation of village artists Clara and Peter Morrow, because of Peter’s intense jealousy of Clara’s professional success. The couple agree to live apart for a year, then reunite to decide whether they have a future together. On the appointed day, however, Peter fails to show up, and after weeks of worry, Clara asks for Gamache’s advice. The good-hearted Armand cannot refuse, and offers to help Clara track her husband’s whereabouts. Peter’s trail, faint at first, turns out to encompass four European and two Canadian cities, before it abruptly ends. The worst is feared. Through a combination of well honed investigative skills and keen intuition, Gamache’s and Jean-Guy Beauvoir (now son-in-law and former second in command), manage to piece together seemingly unrelated details and bring the search to a suspenseful conclusion. No spoilers here.

In what has now become a trend in this series, author Penny takes her readers to some of Quebec’s provincial wonders, in this case the immense Manicouagan Crater, caused eons ago by the impact of an asteroid. The famous art colonies at Baie St. Paul and the mighty St. Laurence River are also given parts to play. As always, her elegant prose, psychological insight, and memorable characters, who by now seem real to me, add a strong literary component which raises her books above mere genre. Who wouldn’t love to know Gamache? And the characters that are specific to each mystery are just as complex and intriguing as the regulars. I’m hoping that in the next entry, we learn whether thirteen year old Bean is a boy or a girl.

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It’s a Mystery: The Nature of the Beast, by Louise Penny

The Nature of the Beast (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #11)
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, reeling from the traumatic outcomes of his last few cases, has retired and moved to the insulated country village of Three Pines with his wife, Reine Marie. (It makes one wonder why he’d choose a spot where murder happens on a ongoing basis, but there you have it.) Their peace and joy are suddenly marred, however, when a young boy is found murdered in the woods. Gamache takes on a mystery of global proportions as the facts of the death come to light, in his unaccustomed role of consultant to his successor, Chief Inspector Isabelle LaCoste. What they find is a huge rocket launcher, buried in the underbrush, and etched with a horrific image of the Biblical Whore of Babylon. And it’s aimed at the United States.

How do an imaginative child, two secret service clerks, a retired physics professor, a Vietnam era draft dodger, and a serial killer figure into this story? As is usual in a Louise Penny novel, time will reveal all, with a lot of input from Gamache and company. There are some chilling scenes in this novel, as when he interviews the fiendish serial killer, as well as some additional murders. And as usual, the ending is satisfying, leaving no pesky loose ends, but it also leaves some disturbing moral ambiguities. Thought provoking as always and well worth reading, based upon a true situation.

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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 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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