Category Archives: Literary Genres

I enjoy many kinds of books – mystery, fiction, horror, biography, history, young adult, historical fiction, and nonfiction.

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah

I fought reading this book for a while, until I was able to get this from Amazon for a 1¢ (plus shipping, of course).

When “Agatha Christie” appears on the cover larger than the name of the novel and the actual author is tucked down at the bottom, it is not a good sign.

It was overwritten, overthought, overplotted, and shouldn’t have been thought of. Qui bono? The Christie estate? I just wonder whose idea it was. Was this publication timed to coincide with the end of the PBS/BBC series?

Catchpool is thicker than Captain Hastings.

C’est la vie, say the old folks. It goes to show you never can tell, but sometimes you can.

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You Know Who Killed Me by Loren D. Estleman

This novel is the 24th mystery in the Amos Walker series by an amazingly prolific writer, and I’ve read them all. I even own all of them, and I don’t do that often. Estleman must be a clone of Raymond Chandler, or at least as close to being one as a writer can be. The only difference is that Amos Walker walks the blighted streets of Detroit and invests them with “a romantic presence” (Ross Macdonald). MacDonald is the acknowledged heir of Chandler, but I would like to nominate Estleman as the next successor. Maybe a problem with Estleman is that he also writes western novels, Sherlock updates, and other types of books. I just think Amos Walker should be better known.

This book begins with Walker getting out of rehab for alcohol and Vicodin. I’m all for getting clean, but will this take the edge off Walker? We don’t visit any blind pigs in this book, and his drinking is a bit off. And there are no dangerous blondes this time around.

Walker doesn’t get beaten up. Thank heaven, because, my math tells me Walker is about my age. I need my rest. Were I a private detective, I’m afraid I would do most of my investigation behind a computer. The problem is that Walker seems less computer-adept than I am. He still relies on his pal, Barry Stackpole, for research.

Donald Gates was found shot to death in his basement on New Year’s Eve. Billboards announcing “YOU KNOW WHO KILLED ME!” have appeared around town and there is a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the murderer, offered by an anonymous donor. Walker is hire to run down anonymous tips, but, of course, Walker investigates further.

We meet some other old buddies as the bodies pile up and federal agents start trailing Walker. He manages to figure it all out at the end, although justice doesn’t come to all involved.

I laughed more than once – Estleman has such a way with phrasing. It wasn’t the best in the series; I would hope that Estleman hasn’t become weary with Walker. Walker may be as old as I am, but neither of us are ready to retire. If Detroit can come back from bankruptcy, surely there is more life in Amos Walker, too. I wait eagerly for the 25th book. In the meantime, this is a pleasing, if lesser entry in the series.

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Voices by Arnaldur Indriđason

How timely! It is Christmas and here is a book set at Christmas. It is dark and dreary here, just the way Erlendur likes it. I myself don’t know how people north of the Red River stand long, cold, lonely winters. Erlendur is born to it; he may even take a step further. But even he cannot bear to spend the days up to Christmas in his own apartment, even if the hotel room is cold. He has this opportunity because someone has murdered the doorman/Santa Claus in a particularly unseasonal manner.

As I read more of the books from this series, more this author remind me of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer. The solution to contemporary crimes lies in old sins, in old betrayals. Erlendur has the imagination and the understanding to know this. As Faulkner, a man who knew a thing about it, said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

The setting, a hotel, is a rich source for characters. For another quote, a character in Grand Hotel remarks, “People come and go. Nothing ever happens.” (Note to self: Watch the DVD you’ve had for a year. It’s hard for me to watch movies when there are so many books to read.) In this case, the Reykjavik hotel is filled with Christmas tourists. The hotel manager wants to keep the murder under wraps, which makes it difficult for Erlendur and his detectives to conduct their investigator. It does make it possible for Erlendur to meet a fetching forensic lady DNA swabber. Their “date” is so well-written; Erlendur is like so many of us older folks – we have so much baggage that is difficult to unpack. How does someone let down the defenses? Not Erlendur who prefers to drink Chartreuse while reading about people lost in snowstorms. Do they have Match.com in Iceland?

Erlendur’s investigation reveals a picture of the dead man that, as is usual with this deeply disturbing writer, goes far beneath the surface to create a story of suffering and loss uncovered by the police investigation. And the murdered man has more in common with Erlendur than is readily apparent. If the relationship between siblings was a theme of Silence of the Grave, the theme in this book shifts to parent and child. We learn more and more about Erlendur with each book in the series.

The book is essentially about the abuses and their effects on childhood: the long-term damage suffered as a result of parental expectations and the recollections that distort and mar adult life. Indridason is particularly powerful on the connections of a case with the investigator’s memories.

Indridason reaches profound psychological depths. Voices is a brutal, soulful noir from Nordic shores.

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Silence of the Grave by Arnaldur Indriđason

I am so glad I found this series (via the New York Times). This book won the CWA Gold Dagger Award, an award given annually by the Crime Writers’ Association for the best crime novel of the year. Silence of the Grave is the second installment. I am currently reading the third book in the series, Voices.

Usually, I prefer the lone wolf detective, following in the path of Philip Marlowe. I find that the personal stuff, the angst, the family drama detracts and distracts from the essential puzzle. That is what has turned me off of Sarah Paratsky, Sue Grafton, and Marcia Muller. Helene Tursten’s books are beginning to annoy me; her family is too nice, stable, and sane. Dorothy L. Sayers is, of course, in another category all together. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple are both single and don’t have family worries to deal with.

Interestingly, it seems that women authors feel the need to include the family drama. Male authors generally create detectives who are loners. I certainly haven’t read every mystery author, but in my experience, that’s the pattern.

Indriđason’s Erlendur is a loner, but he has family problems and personal baggage. That could be a turn-off for me, but Indriđason integrates Erlendur’s personal life so well into the investigations that there is no separation, no break. These books are so well written that everything works together.

Silence of the Grave explores the characters’ troubled past and how it affects their present. I am reminded of the attraction for me of Ross McDonald’s Lew Archer series. Events from the past always come back to haunt the present. Erlendur becomes an even deeper character in this book, and I look forward to his development in the next books. I’ve just order the next three books in the series.

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Bryant & May and the Bleeding Heart by Christopher Fowler

It must be Christmas because my favorite authors are bestowing gifts on me! Another Bryant and May!! And another Amos Walker!! And another Mma Precious Ramotswe. Glorious Christmas break.
Yes, the boys are back. I wish I could visit their agency and talk to Arthur and John. I have no doubt that Arthur would be difficult to live with, but I do enjoy the frequent visits, especially the kittens. This is the team’s 11th adventure.

This tale begins in a cemetery (not a graveyard). Two teens witness a grave-robbing. The boy is run by a car the next day. Then the seven ravens of the Tower of London disappear. Being peculiar crimes, it is up to Arthur Bryant and John May must figure out how these two mysteries are related. People lie, conceal, misdirect, and generally act like stoic English folks.

Soon we are introduced to Victorian body snatchers, black magic, crossbow archers, secret bank vaults, and industrial waste. The sinister necromancer Mr. Merry, who seems much more dangerous in this book, challenges the confidence, assurance, and perspicacity of Mr. Bryant.

The Peculiar Crimes Unit is again on the edge of being dissolved. It has a new manager, a woman who spouts the last business jargon. (She is reminiscent of Jake Gyllenhaal’s role in “Nightcrawler.”) She brings out the worst in Bryant, who does not appreciate someone with an “M.B.A. in advanced gibberish.” In the end, of course, she succumbs to the charm of the PCU, including the kittens.

Mr. Fowler has created Bryant and May as sweet, fusty, endearing throwbacks to the Golden Age of mysteries, when the genre was brainy and pure. They are the last of a breed and they know it. They remain exactly where they belong.

I love this series, and I look forward to the 12th. These books are always refreshing, and I so enjoy entering Bryant and May’s world. Our world would be better if they really lived in IRL. I only hope that they are never closed down. These guys deserve to live forever.

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The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale

In this book’s review in the New York Times Book Review, Marilyn Stasio dubbed this a True-Lit-Hist-Myst. It is the story of a true crime, committed in 1860, so it is also history, and is truly a mystery, because we cannot, at this remove, ever know whodunit for certain.

Crime stories pose puzzles for readers, along with solutions. That’s what can be comforting about them; order emerges from chaos. Novels (and true crime, too) can tell us more. They define a culture, comment on class and society, and ask their readers big questions about morality and human nature.

I first read this story in Victorian Murderesses: A True History of Thirteen Respectable French and English Women Accused of Unspeakable Crimes by Mary S. Hartman. The focus of this book was the role of women in Victorian England and how their status affected the causes and effects of the murder. It is a fascinating book; I recommend it for anyone interested in this subject.

Constance Kent came to the notice of Britain in the summer of 1860. The murder of her young half-brother at Road Hill House shocked Britain. Dickens was enthralled by it, Wilkie Collins and others appropriated it, and the public couldn’t get enough of it. Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher attempted to solve the crime and suffered as a result.

The morning of Saturday, June 30, 1860, Saville Kent, aged three years and 10 months, was missing from his bed. Soon after he was found, stuffed down the servants’ outside toilet on the grounds of the house. His throat had been cut.

The murder of a child was appalling enough, but the public was also frightened by the possibilities. It had been an inside job. How could one protect one’s home when a murderer lurked within rather than without. Summerscale is very good on the attitudes of the time. An Englishman’s home was, indeed, very much his castle. Servants could be spies or worse.

Detectives were all the rage. Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin began the public’s fascination with the rational detection of crime. Jack Whicher was one of the eight original Scotland Yard detectives. Whicher was 45 and had a string of successes behind him. Two years before Road Hill House, he had apprehended a thief who had made off with a Leonardo da Vinci. He had also aided the hunt for some revolutionaries who had attempted the assassination of Napoleon III in Paris. Dickens (whose character of Bucket in Bleak House was broadly based on Whicher’s friend and boss Charley Field) knew Whicher and had eulogized the new breed of detective as “models of modernity” in several magazine articles and stories.

There was resentment on the art of local police to the interference of Whicher, a London man. They had already formed the view that the killers had probably been Saville’s own father and nursemaid. (Kent had married the children’s governess after his first wife went mad and died.) Whicher, however, soon formed a different conclusion, one based on psychology and instinct. For him, the prime suspect was Saville’s half-sister Constance.

Constance was arrested and brought to court. Her defense lawyer made a mockery of Whicher’s inquiries and guesses, while the local constabulary campaigned to discredit the Londoner. Public opinion was on Constance’s side. Even Dickens became disillusioned with detectives. What was needed, it was decided, was a kind of detective who was “not so much a scientist as a machine”.

All the bad publication halted Whicher’s career. But in 1865, a year after his retirement, Constance walked into Bow Street magistrates’ court and confessed to the crime. She had spent the past few years in an Anglo-Catholic convent and was accompanied to the police by the Reverend Wagner and Katharine Gream, the Lady Superior of the convent. In short time, she was tried and convicted of the murder of her half-brother.

The problem for the reader is that we do not know how anyone feels or thinks about the events. We cannot know the inner workings of anyone’s mind. This is where novels come into their own: they allow us to move beyond surface appearances towards a deeper understanding of motivation and psychology. The organizing of chaos is also what novels do well. Indeed, they do it so much better than real life, which is why we read them. What the book does well, however, is to look at notions of class, criminality, human nature and religion in an age of change.

Constance was saved from execution by Queen Victoria, but served 20 years for the crime, then disappeared. Newspapers still felt that the details of her confession didn’t add up. Whicher retired a broken man, but even after the culprit was brought to justice there were still questions that have never been answered.

Stasio recommends that the true lit-hist-myst buff move on to The Mystery of Edwin Drood, The Moonstone, or Lady Audley’s Secret. I would plan to follow this suggestion, as well as dipping into The Water Doctor’s Daughters by Pauline Conolly. in Victorian Murderesses and Death at the Priory: Love, Sex, and Murder in Victorian England by James Ruddick. These are about two other murders Hartman discusses in Victorian Murderesses.

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Jar City by Arnaldur Indriđason

Jar City, the first entry in the Reykjavik Thriller series, is one of the most compelling mysteries I have read in a while. I actually had to sit down, or lie down, to read this book, rather than reading it on the run, as I have read several recent books.

Jar City is written by Arnaldur Indriđason and translated from the Icelandic by Bernard Scudder. Jar City is the first translated book in the series featuring Reykjavik detective Erlendur.

This story is another excellent Scandinavian mystery, this time from Iceland. It is a well plotted, well-paced police procedural. Since Henning Mankel has ended his Kurt Wallander series, I have searched for a suitable alternative. I believe Erlendur is going to be it. Like Wallander, Erlendur has some personal issues, but they don’t distract from the mystery but enhance it. (Unlike Sara Paretsky or Marcia Muller or others I won’t name.) This style, I feel, comes closest to Chandler or Hammett – just the facts, ma’am. I could praise the Loren Estleman Amos Walker series for the same attribute, but I will refrain from getting too off topic. Erlendur’s combination of bluntness and analytical astuteness makes “Jar City” an unusually forceful and thought-provoking thriller.

An interesting factoid: in the homogeneic population of Iceland, people address each other by first names. People are even listed by their first name in the telephone directory.

Jar City has elements I have enjoyed in the Ross McDonald Lew Archer series. Inspector Erlendur discovers that many years ago the murder victim was accused, but not convicted, of rape. Did the old man’s past come back to haunt him? When Erlendur reopens this very cold case, he follows a trail of unusual forensic evidence, uncovering secrets that are much larger than the murder of one old man. Jar City constructs a haunting, satisfying puzzle out of violence and chaos. The murder opens up a nest of older crimes and brooding secrets. Erlendur finds himself investigating a possible rape from 30 years before

The picture of Iceland that emerges in Jar City is vivid and powerful but not something the country’s tourist board would be likely to endorse. The landscape has its grim poetry certainly — mountains framing the apartment blocks of Reykjavik, volcanic rock jutting into a churning sea — but a fog of damp unhappiness seems to pervade every face and conversation.

The emotions at the heart of this philosophical detective story are dark and tangled, like the grisly surprises that seem to be buried under every floorboard. Jar City is icy and cerebral but also grimly and intensely alive to the physicality of murder.
I am pleased to find another author and series that meet my criteria. I already have the next two books in the series stacked up for reading.

I noticed in my reading about this book that there has been a movie made from it in Iceland. I don’t know that it is available here. However, there are plans to film it in English; unfortunately, it is supposed to be reset in New Orleans. What? You say “icy” and “cerebral” and the last place I think of is New Orleans. Why do they do these things? Is always about the money?

My solution: read the book.

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