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On Robert Galbraith’s “The Silkworm” (Cormoran Strike #2)

21 Apr

The Silkworm [2014] by Robert Galbraith

The Silkworm [2014] by Robert Galbraith

My head must have been buried in the proverbial sand last summer since it seemed I completely missed the publication of Robert Galbraith’s second novel and second entry in the Cormoran Strike series. Galbraith, better known to the world as legendary British author J.K. Rowling, ups the ante with The Silkworm, a much darker and much nastier murder mystery for our favorite one-legged, ex-military, Cornish private detective Cormoran Strike and his sidekick, the blonde and curvy Robin Ellacott. In a wintry London, an unpopular author disappears on the heels of a public row (see how London I’m being?) with his agent. Strike must navigate the murky waters of the city’s literary elite, with all its undercurrents and toothy predators.

The first Cormoran Strike novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, featured our burly hero solving the murder of tragically gorgeous model Luna Landry, and the high-publicity victim made the detective an overnight sensation. His business is booming with the revenue from wealthy cuckolds, and all seems to be settling into a calm and distinctly murderless daily grind. That is, until–in the grand old tradition of noir mysteries–a distraught woman appears on Strike’s doorstep. Leonora Quine’s husband, the contested and now washed up author Owen Quine, has gone missing, and we all know what “missing” means when it comes to books shelved in the mystery/thriller section of the bookstore.

Look at that guy. So private. Such detective. Though, I doubt Strike keeps such a neat desk. Or ever wears a tie, for that matter. (Photo from "blackwarrior57")

Look at that guy. So private. Such detective. Though, I doubt Strike keeps such a neat desk. Or ever wears a tie, for that matter. (Photo from “blackwarrior57“)

Strike juggles his smaller jobs, the deep and manly angst he feels as his ex-girlfriend prepares to get married to some northern aristocrat, his confusing feelings for his secretary Robin, and the case of the missing author. Can things possibly get more complicated?? They always do. The missing Quine leaves behind the manuscript of his latest novel, a novel so grotesque and slanderous that Strike suddenly has his hands full with suspects in the author’s mysterious disappearance. Quine titled the unpublished novel Bombyx mori, the Latin name for the silkworm, and it reads like a raunchy, X-rated Pilgrim’s Progress. The characters of the novel are thinly veiled references to the people in Quine’s life, and no one escapes the man’s scathing criticism. Quine’s agent, editor, publisher, wife, mistress, protégé, and rival all feature prominently in Bombyx mori and all get the symbolic shaft in the most wonderfully gruesome, vivid and vitriolic ways. The caustic nature of Owen Quine’s opus leaves Strike with too many and, yet, none at all. It’s up to his perseverance and Robin’s clutch skills for the duo to find out what really happened to the antagonistic author.

The brutality of The Silkworm blows The Cuckoo’s Calling out of the water. From the graphic, carnal detail of Owen Quine’s unpublished Bombyx mori to the gruesome nature of Strike’s discoveries in his investigation, the content of this novel proves to the world that Galbraith holds no reservations with her writing and pulls no punches. One can’t help but wonder that, since everyone knows her true identity, Galbraith is making that extra special effort to distance her new works from the young adult categorization of the writing that made her a worldwide phenom. On the other hand, the blood and guts of The Silkworm also point to the deliciously evil minds of writers.

This cute little bugger is the namesake of Owen Quine's novel, Bombyx mori. (Photo from "Steve Begin")

This cute little bugger is the namesake of Owen Quine’s novel Bombyx mori. (Photo from “Steve Begin“)

More disturbing than icky silkworms and the vile details of Bombyx mori is the pattern Galbraith creates among her female characters, who are portrayed as possessive, passive-aggressive, wastes of time. Even Robin, despite one or two flashes of brilliance, suffers from the moodiness of a petulant child. Strike’s desire to help Leonora Quine comes from his personal sense of honor and morality rather than any empathy for her, as seen from his constant impatience with her grief. The men in the novel are evil, and the women in the novel are motivated entirely by the men around them. I hope future Cormoran Strike novels (and I’m sure there will be future Cormoran Strike novels) give women more agency and less angst. Robin won my admiration in The Cuckoo’s Calling and I would love to see her come into her own as a full crime-fighting partner beside Strike.

Read It: Gore hounds and mystery buffs will eat this right up, not to mention J.K. Rowling zealots! The sequel to Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling is classic noir with a touch of Criminal Minds-level grotesquerie, and our favorite one-legged private detective is on the case, prepared to solve mysteries with a combination of brute, Cornish force and straight-up perseverance.

Don’t Read It: Not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach, The Silkworm can be a little too graphic–both in the bedroom and in the Billiards Room with the knife (and the hydrochloric acid), if you know what I mean. All the darkness Rowling alluded to in her Harry Potter series is fully realized here in Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike series.

Similar Books: One other author comes to mind as having accomplished exactly what Robert Galbraith aka J.K. Rowling is currently doing: Roald Dahl forged his career penning beloved children’s novels about magic and love and overcoming the horrors of the growing up, while simultaneously establishing his collection of wonderfully raunchy adult stories about sex and kinkiness. Check out Switch Bitch or the collection of stories in The Best of Roald Dahl. And, of course, Robert Galbraith’s first Cormoran Strike novel The Cuckoo’s Calling should be the prerequisite to The Silkworm, but it’s not entirely necessary.

I love that the same author who can sit primly in wedge heels reading to kids in a garden can also write about grotesque murder and psychopathic sexual angst.

Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) reads to her adoring fans from one of her books, presumably not this one. I love that the same author who can sit primly in wedge heels reading to kids in a garden can also write about grotesque murder and psychopathic sexual angst. (Photo from “Devon Steven“)

On Lauren Beukes’s “The Shining Girls”

28 Jan
If you were a slacker like me, and you haven't read Lauren Beukes's The Shining Girls yet, go read it now!

If you were a slacker like me, and you haven’t read Lauren Beukes’s The Shining Girls yet, go read it now!

Whoa. I mean, like, really whoa. I had a tough enough time understanding the dangers of messing with the space-time continuum in Star Trek episodes, so Lauren Beukes’s The Shining Girls took a lot of head juices to survive, and I mean this in the best possible way. I’m still reeling from the final revelations of this blockbuster book where a serial murderer travels through time to target victims who, to his psychotic mind, “shine.” Beukes takes us through the mind of Harper Curtis, a Depression-era homicidal maniac, to each of his victims–an economics student, an architect, a ship welder, to name a few–including one survivor: Kirby Mazrachi. Each of these young women carry in them creative genius, ambition, resilience. Each one of them is marked for death by Harper’s “gift.” Between its unique setting, memorable characters, and Beukes’s obvious mastery of time travel, The Shining Girls is a radiant collection of talent and entertainment value.

If you can look past the gruesome murders and the blatant science fiction themes and mind-frigging (See? I’m keeping it PG.) plot twists, you can see that Beukes’s strength lies in her understanding of people. Kirby Mazrachi and Dan Velazquez, the jaded journalist she enlists to help her turn the tables on a serial killer, come alive on the page. Honestly, it was the two of them and the sadistically engrossing Harper that kept me wrapped up in this story. When Harper finds a seemingly magical House that can transport him across years and decades, he begins coming into his own, into his destiny as a serial murderer, and his transformation is both chilling and thrilling. It’s rare to find a novel, especially a sci-fi novel, that finds a balance between character and plot, and it’s rare to find an author who excels at writing character and plot. Beukes certainly excels.

Somehow, Beukes can pull off the crazy-man-red-string-mural and not be crazy or a man. Bravo, Beukes. Bravo.

Somehow, Beukes can pull off the crazy-man-red-string-mural and not be crazy or a man. I guess you have to keep time travel organized somehow. Bravo, Beukes. Bravo.

Now, I have to acknowledge all of you time travel experts: Time travel experts, I acknowledge you. The Shining Girls isn’t infallible. The science of the House is never explained. Harper’s shining objects and shining subjects aren’t explored in detail. I happen to like it better that way. Beukes uses mystery and brevity to move the plot along. She’s certainly no Crichton or Stephenson, and I consider this a simple stylistic difference, not ineptitude. There are plenty of people out in all of the alternate realities and timelines that will criticize Looper or Star Trek or Deja Vu, that totally forgettable Denzel Washington movie, for the plot holes in their time travel logic, and it’s preventing them from enjoying perfectly good fictional entertainment. I’m sure lots of those same folks are going to root around TSG for errors, too, but they can go suck it, because you know what? It’s time travel. Ain’t real. So deal.

Don't argue with it. Just let it happen. Let time travel change your life.

Don’t argue with it. Just let it happen. Let time travel change your life. What’s your favorite time travel movie/book/TV show?

On Paul Auster’s “The New York Trilogy”

28 Dec
Do you love mysteries? Do you not love mysteries? Either way, start your 2014 with quality reading and pick up Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy.

Do you love mysteries? Do you not love mysteries? It doesn’t matter. Start your 2014 with quality reading and pick up Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy.

It’s never more apparent how brilliant Paul Auster is when you start reading him just after you have finished a mediocre novel. The New York Trilogy is one of Auster’s most renowned works of fiction, and–you guessed correctly!–it’s actually three separate novels. In New York, where all magical things happen, several mysteries are being investigated by several characters, some metaphysical shit goes down, people talk a lot about people talking or not talking, excuse me, my name is Peter Stillman. But all that aside, TNYT is a mystery of mysteries. It is the meta-mystery. It transcends. Best to read it while either completely high or sleep deprived.

City of Glass

The first book of TNYT, City of Glass, follows the story of a writer of mystery novels named Daniel Quinn. The writer answers a call from a wrong number, beginning his adventures as an unlikely private detective who is hired to protect Peter Stillman from a potential murderer. Peter Stillman lived most of his life locked in a pitch black room and being beaten into utter silence. His potential murderer is the father who locked him in the room and beat him. As Quinn investigates the case and tracks Stillman Senior through the streets of Manhattan, he takes on multiple identities, slowly losing himself to his various fictitious selves and falling into the void of the Stillman’s mysterious story.

The first in The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster's City of Glass takes mystery to a new level.

The first in The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster’s City of Glass takes mystery to a new, meta, super level.

Auster’s narrative breaches the fourth wall again and again, wrapping the reader into the absurd plot, too. Along for the ride, you will feel Quinn’s growing panic as his meticulous notes gradually lose meaning and as his life becomes increasingly isolated, distilling to a narrow view of the world of only two entities–Quinn and Stillman–and then eventually just one entity. Eerie but infinitely gripping, City of Glass kicks off the trilogy with a strong start. I don’t know how anyone could stop at just one book the The New York Trilogy.

“For our words no longer correspond to the world. When things were whole, we felt confident our words could express them. But little by little these things have broken apart, shattered, collapsed into chaos. And yet our words have remained the same. They have not adapted themselves to the new reality.” –City of Glass

Ghosts

The second installation opens with an actual private detective. Blue has just inherited sole ownership of his agency from his retiring mentor, Brown. Blue’s first client is a man named White who comes to him, obviously in disguise, to hire Blue to shadow a man named Black. Taking up the case, Blue spends days, then weeks, then months watching Black do nothing but sit at his desk writing. The reports Blue writes to White start telling more the story of Blue’s life than Black’s the line between their lives begins to blur. (Yeah, blurred lines. I said, and now the song will you be stuck in your head like it’s stuck in mine.) But can the two of them continue to exist as essentially the same person in two different places?

The second installation, Ghosts, tells the story of a private detective, Blue, who has been hired by White to shadow Black.

The second installation, Ghosts, tells the story of a private detective, Blue, who has been hired by White to shadow Black. The question is, where was Burgundy this whole time?!

Auster drops some of the character development and detail of the first novel to introduce more themes of the trilogy–namely, the grey area between author and character. It’s the chicken and the egg conundrum: the author and his character. Which came first? Which is more real? Which one survives the other? The New York Trilogy explores these questions over and over again, from different angles and with different names, but the story is the same. A man stands watching another man who watches back. They tell each other’s stories and therefore tell there own. In Ghosts, Auster gets to the nitty gritty, and maybe that means he’s lost some entertainment value, but by this time I was thoroughly hooked.

“This isn’t the story of my life, after all, he says. I’m supposed to be writing about him, not myself.” –Ghosts

The Locked Room

Auster’s final installation is The Locked Room, a title that references both earlier novels in the trilogy, describing a place of solitude, birth, and demise. In TLR, the protagonist speaks from his own perspective for the first time. His childhood friend Fanshawe has disappeared, leaving behind a wife, child, and boxes of brilliant writing. The narrator steps in to publish Fanshawe’s work for him, making a splash in the publishing community, and begins to take care of the missing author’s abandoned family. Fanshawe has both blessed and cursed the narrator’s life. Our protagonist becomes obsessed with finding Fanshawe and ending the curse.

The Locked Room finishes the trilogy with the story a man searching for his missing friend, who abandoned his family and critically acclaimed writing and disappeared into thin air.

The Locked Room finishes the trilogy with the story of a man searching for his missing friend, who abandoned his family and critically acclaimed writing and disappeared into thin air.

“Then I hauled the two suitcases slowly down the stairs and onto the street. Together, they were as heavy as a man.” –The Locked Room

All three novels bring forward the same conundrum: who writes whom? Does the author birth the character or vice versa? Who is allowed to live in the end? It’s a fascinating question. It’s a fascinating plot that Auster can base three novels–and three entertaining novels, at that–on a mystery that is never really solved, and I suppose that’s the point. There isn’t an answer. There is only the question. Well, that’s kind of cheating, but since it’s Paul Auster I guess I’ll let it slide. Now I will need to pick up a copy of Paul Karasik’s and David Mazzucchelli’s graphic novel adaptation of City of Glass, as should you.

Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli adapted Auster's City of Glass as a graphic novel.

Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli adapted Auster’s City of Glass as a graphic novel.

On Robert Galbraith’s “The Cuckoo’s Calling”

19 Dec
Richard Galbraith's (aka, J.K. Rowling's) The Cuckoo's Calling got another couple of rounds of publishing once everyone figured out the Harry Potter superstar was the real author.

Richard Galbraith’s (aka, J.K. Rowling’s) The Cuckoo’s Calling got a lot more heat once everyone figured out the Harry Potter superstar was the real author.

Let’s start this off with a confession. I was once a Rowling hater. That’s right. I hated J.K. Rowling. Part of my hate was born from a knee-jerk reaction to the rest of the world’s absolute adoration of her and her popular Harry Potter children’s book series. Part of it was created by Rowling’s clear misunderstanding of the use of punctuation in the English language. Altogether, I’m a crotchety reader who has a difficult coming to terms with her biases. With that in mind, I read the Potter series in 2011 and felt … OK about it. If I had grown up on them like the rest of my peers, I’m sure I would think differently, but I was reading Dickens when they were reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. When I learned Rowling wrote a grown-up book, I was intrigued, more so because of how she had done it: incognito. The Cuckoo’s Calling is a straight-up detective novel. There’s no kitsch–nothing fancy here–just a good old fashioned  murder and good old fashioned detective work. Reading Rowling under the guise of Robert Galbraith is like running into your fifth grade teacher outside of school and realizing she curses–like, a lot–and has a love life. I had to come to the same terms when I realized Roald Dahl wrote a morbid kind of erotica. Plenty of authors write mainstream fiction then dabble in the young adult genre, but I can see the opposite being much more challenging, especially for author whose fame is of such scale. Rowling has her work cut out for her. Any time she writes a book from here until eternity, she will be competing with herself, Harry bloody Potter, and the entire world’s nostalgic deification of her wildly popular children’s book series. I can definitely understand her choice to write under a pen name. I can also understand how her probably peaceful dalliance in anonymity was so brief.

You can't hide for long, Rowling! (Pic from The Guardian)

You can’t hide for long, Rowling! (Pic from The Guardian)

Now that we have the annoying “Oh, my God, it’s J.K. Rowling!” part out of the way, let’s talk about the book. Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling is an old school detection novel. A woman dies and a crotchety, loner sleuth hoofs it around town beating down doors and wrestling down confessions. Our dead woman is Lula Landry, a tortured but beyond-gorgeous model of mixed race, who supposedly threw herself from her fourth story penthouse to her death on the snowy streets below. Her tormented adopted brother, a lawyer of a prestigious London firm, believes her “suicide” to be murder and sets the crotchety, loner sleuth Cormoran Strike on the hunt. Strike is a war veteran-turned-private eye.

No one can read "private investigator" without thinking of THE private investigator. Between Hammet and Bogart, the profession will always be partiall under the shadow of Sam Spade. (from Sheer Investigations)

No one can read “private investigator” without thinking of THE private investigator. Thanks to Hammett and Bogart, the profession will always be partially under the shadow of Sam Spade. (from Sheer Investigations)

Strikes unintentional sidekick is Robin Ellacott, transplanted to London to be nearer her fiancee and is taking temp jobs until she finds a “real” one. Her first assignment is to assist the indebted, recently dumped, and mildly homeless Cormoran Strike. The two slowly form a working partnership and eventually a working friendship. At first I was pleased with the idea of a buddy cop story line with members of the opposite sex, but there is some tension between Robin and Cormoran that make me think Rowling will take the partnership-cum-friendship to a “partnership” of a different kind in future iterations of the Cormoran Strike series.

Characters are the key in The Cuckoo’s Calling. It’s Cormoran’s muddled but full life that drew me in and his personality–easily switching from bad cop to a soul with the deepest empathy–carried me through the novel. Equally, Robin’s endearing naivete of city life and the world of crime juxtaposed with her fervor for the life of a private eye made her an exciting character to read. I’m not certain that Rowling is a mystery writer … yet. The plot was primarily lengthy interviews with suspects and witnesses, broken up by scenes of egregious drinking, and the conclusion came a surprise only because I felt the clues didn’t add up. But I will say the author knows how to write people. She knows how to craft a lasting, singular character, and for that reason alone I will most likely read the next Cormoran Strike novel. I’m guessing we can expect at least another six books, right?

On Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl”

29 Oct
Gone Girl is the 2012 thriller by Gillian Flynn and tells the story of Nick Dunne, under suspicion of killing his wife Amy.

Gone Girl is the 2012 thriller by Gillian Flynn and tells the story of Nick Dunne, under suspicion of killing his wife Amy.

I came to this book without expectations. It seems everyone but I had heard of it and already added it to their Goodreads “Want to Read” bookshelf, but it’s all in character for me, so I shouldn’t be surprised. That being said, I only got to page 16 before I decided I loved this book. Gillian (like my name, so we’re practically twins!) Flynn’s Gone Girl is a perfect specimen for a morbid curiosity. The girl in question is Amy Elliott Dunne, the supposed victim in a missing person’s case. Her husband Lance Nicholas “Nick” Dunne is the supposed perpetrator (because it’s always the husband, right?). Amy and Nick are beautiful, successful, clever, and bursting with love for each other, but when both are laid off, the initial spark of their marriage dies out, and a family crisis uproots them from their beloved Manhattan and lands them in Nick’s rural Missouri hometown of North Carthage, the two are embroiled in a battle of wit, sadism, and manipulation. You won’t be able to tear your eyes away from this train wreck, and you may think you can predict the outcome (and maybe you’re better at that than I am), but you will enjoy the unfolding of this disastrous relationship the whole time.

Here's my one photo of the Mississippi as I passed through St. Paul on a train across country. I imagined the setting of Gone Girl to be similar to this: covered in ominous, morning fog, and full of ancient foreboding.

Here’s my one photo of the Mississippi as I passed through St. Paul on a cross-country train ride. Nick’s hometown of North Carthage sits on the banks of the Mississippi, so I imagined the setting of Gone Girl to be similar to this: covered in an ominous, morning fog. I wonder if you could float a body down the Mississippi all the way to the Ocean …

My one serious query to Flynn is whether or not she made the  neuroses of these characters too typical, too gendered, too easy. She’s created a modern day “hysterical woman,” another Madame Bovary, another madwoman who needs to be locked in an attic. While, with Nick, Flynn transported a needy man-child straight out of a Philip Roth or Jonathan Franzen novel. But in the end, the author shows her skill as a writer in alternating chapters of Amy’s and Nick’s points of view, and keeps them human (not stereotypes or shadows of humans) by staying in their respective crazy heads. Nick’s narrative remains in the “present,” beginning with the day of Amy’s mysterious disappearance. The door to their North Carthage McMansion is left open, the living room is in foreboding disarray, and Amy is gone. Amy’s narrative follows her diaries, beginning with the day she “met a boy.” Even though Amy is gone from the present story line, we still hear her smart-talking, giddy voice through these entries. Too often does an author try to achieve multiple points of view, but ends up creating a schizophrenic break of the one character (or themselves). Flynn, though, switches between the cynical, self-pitying, tortured voice of Nick and the enraged, entitled, embittered voice of Amy with surprising credibility and ease. The beauty of Flynn’s writing is the slow easing into an understanding of the characters’ psychoses. The reader is like a frog in slowly boiling water. The next thing you know, you’ve been cooked by all the crazy.

Gone Girl is all about identities: Internal Nick versus Public Nick, Diary Amy versus Real Amy. Apparently, Christian Bale is the very definition of Schizophrenia (because his image was the first in a Google image search), and I think he would have been a fantastic Nick in the film adaptation. Alas.

Gone Girl is all about identities: Internal Nick versus Public Nick, Diary Amy versus Real Amy. Apparently, Christian Bale is the very definition of schizophrenia because his image was the first in a Google image search. I think he would have been a fantastic Nick in the film adaptation. This photo is extra relevant since my next read is American Psycho. (Pic from Science News to You)

Flynn’s host of side characters set the scene of North Carthage perfectly: Nick’s twin sister Margo and Alzheimer’s-afflicted father paint the perfect picture of our male protagonist: the baby of the family, the man whose brief interaction with his father was to glimpse misogyny at its worst; Detectives Boney and Gilpin, whose calm, small-town demeanor mask two sharp minds that don’t miss a beat; Rand and Marybeth Elliott, Amy’s lovey dovey, child psychologist parents and best-selling co-authors of the children’s book series Amazing Amy; and a whole host of townspeople and neighbors, all ready to claim Amy as the their best friend, and all ready to pick up pitchforks and torches. Despite the fact that we’re stuck in Amy’s and Nick’s heads, these side characters don’t disappoint in their fullness and distinctness.

Gone Girl isn’t just a story of a couple with couple-y problems. It’s the story of two people with serious, psychological issues, including the intensity of their gender stereotypes. I don’t want any potential readers to be deterred from this novel because it’s about a marriage. Nick’s and Amy’s relationship make the story that much more frighteningly good, because it’s fraught with all the sexual, gender, and marital tension you can imagine. Flynn’s understanding of psychology and obvious skill at mystery narratives make Gone Girl an intense and constantly entertaining read, with a (no spoilers!) killer ending that will leave you 100% satisfied.  In fact, I’m not sure any book I’ve read this year can quite match the ending I just read, but that may be because I’m still coming off of a Gillian-Flynn high. Make sure you read this book, preferably before you get married and/or move to rural Missouri, and preferably before the David Fincher film adaptation comes out next year.

The film adaptation of Gone Girl has already been cast: Ben Affleck takes the lead with Rosamund Pike--a big transition for Pike from cutesie roles like Jane Bennett to cold, calculating Amy Dunne.

The film adaptation of Gone Girl has already been cast: Ben Affleck takes the lead with Rosamund Pike–a big transition for Pike from cutie roles like Jane Bennet to cold, calculating Amy Dunne. Who would you have cast? (Pic from BuzzSugar)

Update: I recently watched the movie, which was released on October 3, 2014. Check out how the film chalks up to the novel here!

On Hakan Nesser’s “The Inspector and Silence”

29 Jul
Buy the book, but also read this article on Bloomberg by Hephzibah Anderson on this fabulous genre.

Buy the book, but also read this article on Bloomberg by Hephzibah Anderson on this fabulous genre.

I may have a problem. I just can’t quit these mystery novels. After the light reading from last week’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case, I’m returning to the cold brutality of Scandinavian murder mysteries. I picked up Hakan Nesser’s The Inspector on Silence purely based on the jacket description and cover art. (I’m not afraid to admit I judge books by their covers.)

TIaS is the story of Chief Inspector Van Veeteren. Nesser’s notorious protagonist is roped into a case in the tranquil village of Waldingen. A woman leaves an anonymous tip over the phone, and a girl is found raped and choked to death on the campgrounds of a radical sect of Christians called the Pure Life. The sect builds their religion on  Oscar Yellinek, the savior-like priest who is accused of being everything from a conman to a sex cultist. Van Veeteren, as he becomes more traumatized by the horrors he’s seen in his long career, must suss out the murderer before another girl disappears (and reappears, but deader), all the while combating the sect’s suspicious refusal to cooperate with the investigation and the lulling silence of the beautiful locale.

I know Strangers on a Train or The Orient Express would have been more appropriate mysteries to read on my Amtrak ride from Seattle to Portland this past weekend, but I won't complain about the peaceful vistas of the Puget Sound that accompanied TIaS's protagonist in his own disruptive journey. Isn't violence more grisly when it's set in the serene?

I know Strangers on a Train or The Orient Express would have been more appropriate mysteries to read on my Amtrak ride from Seattle to Portland this past weekend, but I won’t complain about the peaceful vistas of the Puget Sound that accompanied TIaS‘s protagonist in his own disruptive journey. Isn’t violence more grisly when it’s set in the serene?

Nesser’s protagonist spends a large portion of the book wondering what to do next–a process that involves eating rich foods, drinking, smoking, and sometimes paddling a canoe for seven hours. This is not your run-of-the-mill detective-hero who absorbs himself with collecting clues and who, whether through hard work or other-worldly gifts, regularly comes to brilliant revelations. This isn’t even your run-of-the-mill detective-anti-hero who bruises his knuckles and kicks down doors and whose main objectives are to get laid, get drunk, and spill as much blood as possible. Chief Inspector Van Veeteren is disillusioned, ill-tempered, bitter, and most of all lazy. He speaks to himself in one- or two-word sentence fragments. He delegates nearly every task to his subordinates. His biggest regret is forgetting to brush his teeth after a night of beer and beef steaks. Pretty much, Van Veeteren is a normal dude with very few redeeming qualities, and that in itself is his greatest endearment. He’s not an anti-hero; he’s a non-hero. And his personality (or lack thereof) is perfectly juxtaposed with the idyll of Waldingen and brutality of this crime, so don’t think that I find Van Veeteren to be a flaw of the novel.

The flaws I did feel most in TIaS are the occasional clumsy turns of phrase and that fact that a lazy, bored protagonist can easily make for a boring novel. But before the story gets trapped in the doldrums, Nesser saves the it–not with crazy twists or gory details, but with an almost poetic approach to the second main character: silence. Is the “silence” of the title a reference to the eerie lack of communication from the sect’s members, or the misleading tranquility of Waldingen, or the speechlessness of God as the sickening details unfold? Van Veeteren stumbles through all of it trying to reach his own silence when he can leave all the horrors behind and be at rest, but until then, he has to see this case through, and the hopefully at the end both he and his readers can reach the cathartic end they’re looking for.

On Anthony Berkeley’s “The Poisoned Chocolate Case”

25 Jul
Buy it! It's good!

Buy it! It’s good!

The other day, my girlfriend and I decided to explore Pioneer Square–an older neighborhood of Seattle, still paved with bricks and cobblestone–poke our heads into the touristy gift stores and the high-end specialty boutiques (there’s a whole store of meteorites and fossils!!!), when we stumbled on a bookstore I had never set foot in. This is saying something, considering my bookaholism. The Seattle Mystery Bookshop instantly became a new favorite of mine. I have to confess, aside from my high school dalliance in Agatha Christie and brief obsession with The Turn of the Screw, my experience in the mystery genre is beginner-level at best, so walking into the Seattle Mystery Bookshop was like a third-grader walking into Ms. Frizzle’s classroom on the first day of school: I was like, “Let’s ride on the Magic School Bus, Seattle Mystery Bookshop!”

And my Ms. Frizzle was the wonderful Adele–no, not the Grammy-winning, ballad-belting British woman, but the bad-ass, novel-reading, absurdly friendly bookshop attendee. Adele suggested I try something different than the brutal and cold Jo Nesbo and go classic. She handed me Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case. Published in 1929, TPCC follows a group of literati, gentlemen amateur sleuths, and psychology buffs who form the Crimes Circle. Roger Sheringham, our protagonist and the Crimes Circle’s president, and his colleagues are the wealthy and famous, and Berkeley pulls no punches in poking fun at his characters’ privileged hobby. How I pine for the good old days when, because there’s nothing else to do, I would sit around a table with my friends, drinking sherry and smoking cigars while solving crimes that the working-class Scotland Yard detectives got stumped on. I love just being all intellectual and unraveling mysteries with my spectacular theories. Most of all, I love referencing Freud a whole bunch.

The cutest bookshop in Pioneer Square! You can fight me on that, but I'm still giddy from my visit there.

The cutest bookshop in Pioneer Square! You can fight me on that, but I’m still giddy from my visit there.

In TPCC, every member of Sheringham’s Crime Circle take an evening to collect their data and put forth their theories, and every member uses a different methodology to come to a different suspect. The crime: the murder of Mrs. Bendix. The weapon: (you guessed it!) poisoned chocolates. The motive: who knows?! The title murder weapon is delivered to known womanizer and general cad Sir Eustace Pennefather at his club, but accidentally gets in the hands of unsuspecting Mrs. Bendix. The police are stumped and ready to write the case off when the Crimes Circle steps valiantly forward to save the day!

Enter the players: Sir Charles Wildman the solicitor uses facts and deduction; Mrs. Fielder-Flemming the playwright uses dramatic tropes for frame her theory; Mr. Morton Harrogate Bradley the mystery novelist is the witty one; Roger Sheringham is the clever, amateur, gentleman-detective, as well as an accomplished mystery writer; Alicia Dammers is the journalist and psychologist; and Mr. Chitterwick is the only one not famous. Only one can be right, only one can rule! Of course, I think I’m smarter than everyone else and try to pick out the killer thirty pages in. There’s no greater accomplishment than solving the fictional murder of a fictional character before all the other fictional characters solve it, and I pride myself in … getting it wrong again. Just like all those Agatha Christie novels I read in high school. Just like every single “Crime Scene Investigation” episode I ever watched (don’t judge me). I think even Gil Grissom would find this murder challenging and certainly entertaining.

Would he not be the perfect addition to the Crimes Circle?! (from www.nickkyme.com)

Would he not be the perfect addition to the Crimes Circle?! (from http://www.nickkyme.com)

Anthony Berkeley, being a contemporary of Agatha Christie and co-founder of the legendary Detection Club, is a quintessential author of the Golden Age of mystery writing. You can sense his self-assurance and absolute enjoyment of the game, and there are definitely laughs to be had throughout the novel. If you like Christie or ’20s literature or mysteries that aren’t heavy on the mutilated bodies and rape, then read Berkeley, and see if you can’t do a better job than me in sussing out the killer.