Monday, June 30, 2014

A Scandal in BelgraviaA Scandal in Belgravia by Robert Barnard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Peter Proctor boards Amtrak from Los Angeles to San Diego. In San Diego, he stays at the Ulysses S. Grant Hotel and interviews a witness in a house "with a view out to the intense blue of the Pacific". A Southern California mystery novel, right? Raymond Chandler? Ross Macdonald? Wrong. Robert Barnard's "A Scandal in Belgravia" is as British as they come, with all the British silliness about social class and "having gone to a good enough school". This is a wonderful little book. One of the better mysteries I have ever read.

Peter Proctor is a Tory ex-MP and an ex-cabinet minister, who had been sacked by (presumably) Mrs. Thatcher (she is not mentioned by name even once, as opposed to earlier prime ministers, Mr. Macmillan and Mr. Heath). The time is late 1980s and Mr. Proctor is working on his memoirs. He is obsessed by the unsolved case of Timothy Wycliffe's murder. Timothy, an aristocrat whose grandfather was the Marquess of Redmond, was Peter's best friend who worked with him in the Foreign Office in 1951. We learn that Timothy was a homosexual, and performing homosexual acts was a crime in the UK in 1950s. It is only 63 years from 1951 (the year I was born, by the way), and things have changed so much.

"The Scandal in Belgravia" is such an outstanding mystery that I could not put it away. It is spellbinding but also extremely rich in sociological observations. The issue of class pervades the novel; the middle-classness of Peter and the upper-classness of Timothy are shown with great depth. There is also a wonderful passage on why Wordsworth was wrong in saying "the child is father to the man". And the brief description of Mr. Proctor's short stay in Los Angeles, where he feels "like being part of a nightmare future" is so fitting and funny. This is the best novel by Mr. Barnard out of the six that I have read, and a really good mystery, with a chilling, logical denouement and no idiotic plot twists. Now, I am really looking forward for more Barnard.

Four and a half stars.

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Sunday, June 29, 2014

Forty StoriesForty Stories by Donald Barthelme
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Since it would be presumptuous of me to try to define postmodern literature, I will borrow the famous phrase from Justice Potter Stewart:"I know it when I see it". Donald Barthelme's "Forty Stories" (1987) is certainly a postmodern work. It is a companion volume to his "Sixty Stories" that I haven't yet read, but definitely will.

Some of the 40 pieces in this volume are proper stories, but many are not; some are literary gimmicks (of high quality, to be sure), for instance, the text of "Concerning the Bodyguard" is made of 108 questions and only 11 sentences in the affirmative. The piece entitled "Sentence" is, aptly, just one sentence, albeit 6-pages long. "The Temptation of St. Anthony" seems to be focused on the word "ineffable". Some pieces include illustrations. The average length of a "story" is about six and a half pages.

I do not like many of the 40 "stories"; perhaps I am just plain too obtuse to understand them. However, several pieces make reading the collection worthwhile. The surreal "On the Deck" is a frozen moment in time; it describes, on just two pages, things and people on the deck of a ferry, and is to literature what Renee Magritte's paintings are to visual arts. My favorite story (it is a proper story) is titled "Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby", which begins with "And now he'd gone too far, so we decided to hang him" and then proceeds logically and Kafkaesquely to the natural ending.

Most importantly, "Forty Stories" is a very funny book. Even if, in my dilettante view, many pieces fail as literature, they are still hilarious. Moreover, Mr. Barthelme has coined several wonderful aphorisms, such as, for example, "Art, Goethe said, is the four-percent interest on the municipal bond of life". So, even if there are many more one-star stories in this collection than five-star ones, my overall rating is high.

Four stars.

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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Bodies (Perry Trethowan, #4)Bodies by Robert Barnard
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Yet another fast and pleasant read before I tackle something more substantial. I keep returning to Robert Barnard's novels because I love his sarcastic humor and snide remarks about various human foibles. "Bodies" is a 1986 novel in the Perry Trethowan series. Perry investigates a quadruple murder committed in a Soho office of a soft porn magazine, and initially the case seems to be connected to the bodybuilding community.

This is definitely not Mr. Barnard's best work. I have been particularly annoyed with the inconsistency of tone in "Bodies". At the beginning, the multiple murder case is presented with a sort of light touch as if the author were saying "Look, it is only a mystery book murder, not a real one". Yet later in the story things get pretty serious and grim.

Still, I do not regret spending the three hours to read the novel. It offers a fascinating glimpse into rituals of bodybuilding, and Mr. Barnard has a field day ridiculing the bodybuilders' limited intellectual prowess. The report from the Aberdeen Bodybuilding Championship is a hoot. The book is peppered with so many hilarious passages that I have been laughing out loud several times. For example, guess who owns the "Bodies" magazine. None other than Mrs. Wittgenstein.

Two and a half stars.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Far SandsThe Far Sands by Andrew Garve
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A mercifully short review, for once. Andrew Garve's 1960 novel "The Far Sands" is an archetypal classic British whodunit which, while not in any way outstanding, is a nice, fast (less than three hours), and entertaining read.

Carol, a struggling actress, marries James, a man of means, who works for the Foreign Office. They are about to embark on a life of wealth and privilege when Carol's twin sister's husband is murdered and the sister drowns close to the murder scene. Carol is convinced it must have been a double murder, but the police are of a different opinion.

The puzzle is quite clever and the denouement only mildly implausible. I like the novel way of utilizing the clichéd twin motif, and I am happy that the author avoids excessive plot twists.

Three stars.

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Sunday, June 22, 2014

Red AprilRed April by Santiago Roncagliolo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Santiago Roncagliolo's "Red April" is a hybrid: it is a novel about Peruvian people, their recent history, culture, and politics, but also a crime drama (a whodunit) about the search for an exceedingly brutal serial killer. The book has been highly praised by critics and won a prestigious award for the best Spanish language novel in 2006. Alas, I am ambivalent about Mr. Roncagliolo's work. While the political/social side of the book indeed is close to a masterpiece, the mystery aspect - although promising and enthralling up to about midpoint of the book - deteriorates eventually into a silly jumble of gratuitous plot twists.

Felix Chacaltana Saldivar serves as a prosecutor in Ayacucho, Peru. A badly burned body with an arm removed is found and Mr. Chacaltana is assigned the case that will bring further gruesome murders with mutilations. The criminal plot is not that important, though; it serves only as a sort of foundation underpinning the essential themes of the novel.

The story takes place between March and May of 2000, several years after the collapse of the guerilla war started in 1980 by the Communist Party of Peru, better known as Sendero Luminoso (The Shining Path). Yet some guerilla fighters still remain active despite the government's proclamations that the terrorist movement has been totally eradicated during the brutal military crackdown of the 1990s. To me the major theme of "Red April" is the vanishing of moral boundaries between terrorism and counterterrorism. Sendero Luminoso guerillas used extreme violence to further their goals; the military forces fighting the insurgents used equally brutal violence and committed numerous human rights abuses. The peasants (campesinos) suffered the most during the war and during the crackdown, from both sides.

Ayacucho, whose name roughly means "dead corner" in Quechua, the language of indigenous Andean people, is famous for being the site of the decisive 1824 battle of the Peruvian War of Independence. It was also used by Sendero Luminoso as the base for their campaign against the government. One can learn a lot about the indigenous peoples' culture as the story is punctuated with colorful descriptions of religious holidays observances, from the end of carnival, through Lent, to the end of the Holy Week. Mr. Roncagliolo vividly portrays the parades and colorful processions, which feature carpets of flowers, hundreds of mules and llamas and which attract numerous tourists. To me, the most fascinating theme of the novel is the amalgamation of the Christian tradition with the indigenous people's beliefs and customs.

Mr. Chacaltana comes off as quite a strange person. While I understand the author's reasons for his main character's transformation, I am afraid it is not convincingly written. The prosecutor is well portrayed at the beginning, but towards the end he becomes somewhat of a caricature, a vessel to carry the author's message.

Two brutal and graphic scenes close to the novel's ending are poignantly sad, yet the meandering plot obliterates the haunting images. Why spoil a very good novel with ridiculous plot twists? Why do so many authors believe that when writing a mystery they have an obligation to make sharp turns at the end?

Three and a half stars.

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Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Go-BetweenThe Go-Between by L.P. Hartley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I used to be a voracious reader when I was a teenager. Each July and August, while on vacations from high school, I spent most of my time reading. I must have been 13, 14 or 15 when I read L.P. Hartley's "The Go-Between" for the first time (in translation into my native language). It was about 48 years ago. It is an amazing coincidence because "The Go-Between" is about a 60-year old man who remembers events that happened 48 years earlier. In 1966 or so the novel did not make much impression on me. No wonder, how could this particular novel impress a teenager? Today, 48 years later, as I have finished reading the English original, I am stunned by the greatness of Mr. Hartley's work. Not only is it flawlessly structured and beautifully written, but it is also full of wisdom about people, the nature of relationships between them, and it presents a brilliant, vivid portrayal of the time.

It is 1900. Leo Colston is almost 13 years old. The mother of his friend from school invites Leo to spend some time in the imposing Georgian mansion in Norfolk, which belongs to the ninth Viscount Trimingham. Leo arrives there on July 8th (another coincidence - this is my birthday) and serves as a go-between who carries messages, mainly between his friend's adult sister and a young farmer who lives nearby. Leo does not know what the messages are about. The pace of the story is leisurely but steady and the plot that moves to the inevitable dramatic resolution is more captivating than in 99% of mystery novels.

So much has been written over the years about this 1953 book that any attempts of mine to analyze it would be ridiculous. Obviously, the loss of innocence and the coming of age are some of the main themes. Leo makes his transition from a child's world to the grown-up world. Yet it is amazing how much more one can find in "The Go-Between"; the author is a gifted observer of human psychology, his portrayal of the rigid English class system is superb, and the richness of details in description of everyday behaviors of, mostly, the upper class has made me feel that I was actually there, that I participated in the cricket game and in the post-game party. Even the Second Boer War casts its shadow onto the plot.

Being a perfect novel, "The Go-Between" is not devoid of humor: Leo's skill of casting spells to further his goals, his adroit analysis of a love triangle while not really knowing what "love" is, and, of course, the wicked business of "spooning" are so funny. But to me, the most hilarious is one of his guesses about what the letters he carries might contain.

The unforgettable first sentence of the novel is one of the most famous in the entire world literature: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." I find the first clause a stunning metaphor, yet it is the second one that delivers the punch. Note the word "they": we are different people in different times. Because of that, 48 years ago, he (Lukasz Pruski in 1966) read a different book.

Five enthusiastic stars.

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Monday, June 16, 2014

Robbie's Wife (Hard Case Crime #29)Robbie's Wife by Russell Hill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hard Case Crime is a line of hardboiled paperback crime novels that has set out to capture the mood of crime novels of the 1940s and 1950s, with their noir charm and pulp-style covers. Russell's Hill "Robbie's Wife" is the first book in this line that I have read, and I can only say (not very eloquently) "Wow!" It rarely happens to me that I read a book in one sitting, but I have not been able to put this book away.

Jack Stone, a 60-year old screenwriter from Los Angeles suffers from writer's block. He flies to England and drives to Dorset, where he plans to work on a new script in the quiet countryside. While staying at the Sheepheaven Farm Bed & Breakfast he falls in love with Maggie, the 40-year old wife of the owner and a sheep farmer, Robbie.

It is one of the most unusual mysteries or crime dramas that I have ever read in that almost half of the novel is a beautifully written love story. The prose in that part is sublime (for once, a blurb on the cover is truthful), and reminds me of J.L. Carr's "A Month in the Country" or L.P. Hartley's "The Go-Between". There is not even a hint of any crime. Then, quite suddenly everything happens. The military enforce a quarantine because of the foot-and-mouth disease. The scenes of slaughtering sheep and burning their carcasses by hundreds are unforgettable. A murder occurs as well and the remaining part of the novel is a captivating psychological thriller.

I find the ending a bit of a letdown. Still, it is quite enigmatic and invites the reader's interpretation. "Robbie's Wife" is a better read than the books by usual bestseller writers. It is so different, fresh, unclassifiable, and charming yet suspenseful. A really great read!

Four and a quarter stars.

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Saturday, June 14, 2014

Empty Ever After (Moe Prager, #5)Empty Ever After by Reed Farrel Coleman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"Empty Ever After" is Reed Farrel Coleman's fifth book in the Moe Prager series. I quite liked the first novel in the series (and rated it with three and a half stars). Despite verbose writing and off-putting pomposity of including a foreword, a prologue, an epilogue, and an afterword, it was a good story, with realistically portrayed characters and sharp sociological observations. Alas, in my view the current installment is a much weaker book.

Moe Prager, an ex-cop, now a PI and a part-time wine merchant, works on the case, whose roots again reach deep into the past, to the events surrounding Patrick's disappearance. Patrick's grave is desecrated and Moe receives a dire warning. Soon, strange events begin to occur to people close to Moe and he suspects that someone who holds a grudge against him wants to hurt him bad.

The main fault of the novel lies in total implausibility of the premise; I am unable to say more without revealing big spoilers. Also, while it is possible that readers who, unlike me, enjoy extreme "twists and turns" in a plot will be satisfied with the ending, I find at least two plot twists simply ridiculous. Although Mr. Coleman's prose is much tighter than in the first novel of the series, the dialogues frequently do not read well; they sound like artificial conversations from TV soaps, and one is almost expecting the canned laughter track. I find the prologue and the epilogue the best parts of the book; they are somber, moving, and well written. The Israel Roth character adds some gravity to the novel.

Two and a half stars.

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Thursday, June 12, 2014

The TunnelThe Tunnel by Ernesto Sabato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ernesto Sabato's "The Tunnel" (1948) is an intense, dark, psychological novella that portrays, with clinical accuracy, one man's obsessive love for a woman (I am not using the term 'obsessive love' just as a characterization but rather as a psychological syndrome). The obsession leads the man to killing the woman, which we learn in the very first sentence.

During an exhibition of his paintings in Buenos Aires, Juan Pablo Castel, a highly respected artist, notices that a woman looking at one of his works focuses on a small fragment of the picture, which he himself, unlike critics and other people, considers most important. Juan Castel's overactive mind instantaneously manufactures a strong bond between himself and the woman. He is shattered when the woman disappears, and for several months he only thinks about her. When he sees her again on the street, he begins stalking her. Then, in an unforgettable scene, he manages to engage the woman, named Maria, in a conversation.

Juan Castel is utterly selfish; he despises other people and he frequently despises Maria, even if he thinks she is the only person in the world who can understand him. He constantly analyzes events, words, moods, and facial expressions, interpreting them in a way that suits him the best at the given moment. He thinks his reasoning is logical, but most of the time the volatile train of his thoughts deludes him into alternating between feeling happiness and despair.

Juan wants to possess Maria completely and totally. Even more than the physical relationship, he desires to control her mind, to make sure that she deeply loves him, and that her manifestations of love are authentic. He will not be happy until she becomes exactly like the vision of Maria that he has created. When he eventually realizes that while he lives inside a dark and lonely tunnel where he has spent his entire life, Maria lives in the freedom of the outside world and will not focus solely on him, he has no choice other than punishing her for his loneliness.

Mr. Sabato's writing is taut, economical, and precise (I have read the book in a good, non-English translation). It reminds me a little of J.M. Coetzee's style, which may be due to their similar backgrounds (Sabato had a Ph.D. in physics and Coetzee has a B.A. in mathematics and also a Ph.D. in linguistics). I am not sure what I love more about "The Tunnel" - the insightful observations of human psychology or the wonderfully tight writing. I find one passage jarring though; the author has included a superfluous six-page conversation about mystery books, which in my view breaks the precise rhythm of the narration.

Four and a half stars.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Pedro PáramoPedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Calling Juan Rulfo's "Pedro Paramo" a novel is a little bit misleading. First, it is a montage, a mosaic of short fragments of text that tell the story in a seemingly random order. Secondly, many passages in the book read like poetry rather than prose. On the first page, we learn that Juan Preciado's mother, on her deathbed, tells her son to go to the village of Comala, find Pedro Paramo, who is Juan's father, and demand what is justly theirs. However, chronologically, Juan's trip to Comala comes rather late in the story, which is told through narration that moves between various point of the past and the present.

The first half of the book, in which Juan wanders around Comala, is hallucinatory, hypnotic, totally spellbinding, and written so beautifully that I reread many fragments several times. Juan finds that Comala is populated mostly by ghosts of people who died. He hears echoes locked in empty rooms; he hears past conversations, screams, laughter. He talks to the ghosts and learns about his and his mother's past. The past and the present coexist.

I am a little disappointed with the second half of the book, which deals mostly with the earlier events. We learn about Pedro Paramo, a rich landowner and the most powerful man in the village, and about his love for Susana. This part of the book is rich in social and historical references (the story takes place before, during, and after the Mexican Revolution of 1910), but, to me, it lacks the ethereal, dreamlike mood of the first half, although the scene of Susana's death is moving and enormously powerful.

Juan Rulfo's book brings to mind famous Faulkner's quote: "The past is never dead. It's not even past.” In "Pedro Paramo" the rhythm of the past is the rhythm of dying; deaths, despair, and suffering are the milestones of life. This book has truly magical passages and I only wish I could read it in the original Spanish (I have read it in a non-English translation).

Four and a quarter stars.

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Sunday, June 8, 2014

Severance PackageSeverance Package by Duane Swierczynski
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Judging by numerous references in the text (and by the writer's surname) I share ethnicity with Duane Swierczynski, the author of "Severance Package". Alas, this will be his last book for me. The first 25 pages are intriguing, then the plot becomes a ridiculous roller-coaster and the novel turns into a non-stop orgy of senseless violence. I have nothing against heavy violence in literature; for example, I rated "Mixed Blood" by Roger Smith, "Eleven Days" by Donald Harstad, "Savages" by Dan Winslow, and "Six Bad Things" by Charlie Huston all with fours stars, because the extreme violence in these novels makes sense. Here it does not. Mr. Swierczynski's novel is just a comic book translated into prose, targeted at readers enamored of killing and torture.

Mr. Swierczynski's characters are totally over-the-top. They can fight with their hands cut off, like the knight in the famous Monty Python sketch ("'tis but a scratch"). A rather small woman can carry two 200-pound men on her shoulders. Also, there is something utterly adolescent in the author's fixation on brassieres; for example, a woman, who is fighting for her life, thinks "Let him see me in my bra". Another woman, mortally injured, gives a guy "a clear view of her bra". Huh? Mr. Swierczynski twice mentions dying at "9.8 meters per second"; 9.8 does not represent velocity - it is the gravitational acceleration, 9.8 meters per second square.

My rating would hit the minimum of one star if not for the first 25 pages and for one hilarious sentence about the misery of being married to an actuary.

One and a half stars.

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Friday, June 6, 2014

Fete FataleFete Fatale by Robert Barnard
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Robert Barnard's "Fête Fatale" could be classified as a "cozy" mystery if not for the author's occasional usage of his trademark sardonic style (alas, there is way too little of that, for my liking). The story takes place in a rather small and closed community, a woman is the sleuth, and there is not much violence. Fortunately for me (as "cozy" is probably my least favorite genre), the author makes some funny sexual references and a the novel conveys a clear social message: a 1980's woman pitched against a Victorian community.

Hexton, a small town in Yorkshire, needs a new vicar. The candidate selected by the bishop is rejected by the town womenfolk as he is avowedly celibate; after all, "everybody knows" that it is the vicar's wife who is the center of the vicarage. Hexton happens to be ruled by women; men's roles are inconsequential (as the author jokes, the town is a case of "Stepford husbands"). Local vet's wife, Helen, is the narrator of the story.

A murder happens during the Annual Hexton Church Fête; police begin their investigation, yet it is Helen, who does most of the sleuthing - she knows the local "web of customs and conventions, the alliances and animosities" better than the police. I find the denouement disappointing but a bit funny, in a perverse way. Also the penultimate sentence of the novel is absolutely hilarious. Still, the portrayal of Hexton is too exaggerated and, for me, there is too much coziness and not enough sarcasm.

Two and a quarter stars.

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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

To Fear a Painted DevilTo Fear a Painted Devil by Ruth Rendell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Ruth Rendell's "To Fear a Painted Devil" continues my flirtation with traditional British mystery. While quite dated (the novel feels a bit older than the 49 years since its publication), it is a nice and very fast read. This standalone mystery features a country doctor as the reluctant sleuth, and police is not mentioned even once.

The story takes place in and around Linchester, which is a cluster of upscale houses in Nottinghamshire. In the set-up that takes almost half of this short novel we meet the characters and we learn about many secrets and lies in various relationships. On the top of marital tension and jealousy we have business conflicts between some parties. Let's also not forget thousands of hungry wasps.

One of the main characters dies in suspicious circumstances, and Dr. Greenleaf, willingly or unwillingly helped by other members of the small community, eventually discovers the truth. While the plot is rather of boilerplate variety, the way that the mystery is solved neatly ties two of the main motifs, although there is definitely one plot twist too many. Characterizations are quite thin and the dramatis personae are just devices to move the plot. All in all, a disappointment, and a weaker work that Ms. Rendell's "From Doon with Death" that I review here.

Two stars.

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Monday, June 2, 2014

The Plot Against Roger Rider (Joan Kahn-Harper, #5)The Plot Against Roger Rider by Julian Symons
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A friend of mine has forever been raving about Julian Symons' classic British mysteries so I decided to try one, to lighten my mood after finishing J.M. Coetzee's "Elizabeth Costello". Quite randomly, I chose "The Plot Against Roger Rider". Unfortunately, I find the novel rather disappointing. It is totally unexceptional - average in writing, slightly above average in characterization, and below average in plot development. Maybe I chose the wrong book out of about 30 mysteries by Mr. Symons. One day, I will give him another chance.

Roger Rider and Geoffrey Paradine have been friends since their youth. Roger was a big boy who protected the smaller Geoffrey from bullying at school. Now Geoffrey works for Roger, who has become a tycoon. However, when Roger hires a detective to spy on his wife, he learns it is the timid Geoffrey that his wife sleeps with. This is just the beginning of a complicated plot that includes disappearances and murders, and which takes place in early 1970s in the UK and Spain.

The three aspects of the novel that I like are occasional sharp observations of motives of human behavior, the well presented portrayal of how politics influences police work in Franco's Spain, and the Sheila and James' thread. The major weakness of the book is that the plot development depends on several major coincidences. Sure, coincidences happen in real life, but in mystery novels they signify sloppy design. There are also three major "twists" at the end of the novel, and I find the last one strained and contrived.

Two stars.

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