Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Re-reading Classic Mysteries

Having wallowed through the darkest winter months reading light, fluffy, predictable cozy mysteries, I decided to up my game just a bit. The very addictive formula for the cozies I had been reading goes like this:
Amateur woman detective who is very nosy and...
Owns a small business...
Or is retired...
And involved or married to a policeman,
Has lots of friends who drop by her cottage or business (herbs, tea, knitting, antiques...)
In her small town or village or small part of a larger city (town within a town)
Somehow gets involved in a murder and decides to solve it herself because:
She is a suspect, or,
Her friend is a suspect and
She doesn't think the police are taking the investigation seriously.
So she annoys the police by interfering and
Puts herself in danger at the end of the book
And stumbles onto a solution and figures out whodunnit by almost getting murdered herself.
These amateur sleuths are not exactly Miss Marple who calmly observes and knows who did it almost from the beginning. These amateurs just stumble around like the unsuspecting teens in the horror films who always go down to the basement in the middle of the night unarmed to investigate the strange noise; we know how that turns out.

This fluffy genre of cozy mysteries is very popular, but after a while I felt like I had dined on dessert one time too many, so I decided to re-read the classic mysteries of the past that these new ones are descended from. What better mystery writer than Dame Agatha Christie herself? I just re-read 'The Murder of Roger Ackroyd' and even though I remembered the plot twist at the end when the murderer is revealed, I enjoyed this even more the second time around. The clues (or 'clews' as it is spelled in the book) are all reported along the way for observant readers; the characters are introduced in a list at the beginning of the book; a diagram of the scene of the crime is included. The whole exposition of the crime moves along at a nice pace with no extraneous dialogue, descriptions or digressions. Hercule Poirot is a professional detective, not an amateur, and is always several steps ahead of the reader in his observations and conclusions about the crime. M. Poirot never blindly wanders around aimlessly looking for clues. The amateur sleuths may be more easy to relate to for many readers than Poirot or Miss Marple, but the reader can aspire to figure out the mystery and compete with the keen intelligence of Christie's detectives.

Related websites:
Cozy Mystery List
Cozy Mysteries Unlimited
Mystery Cozy
Agatha Christie
'The Top Ten Agatha Christie mysteries' article in the Guardian

In a Dry Season

If you like the PBS television show 'DCI Banks,' read the series it is based on by Peter Robinson. 'In a Dry Season' is the tenth in the series and the first I've read. Alan Banks has been relegated to boring desk jobs for insubordination and is assigned to a cold case when a skeleton is found in an abandoned village which is revealed when the summer drought dries up the reservoir that had covered the town for fifty years. The book alternates between the story of the village during WWII and the current investigation into what appears to have been an unreported murder there. This book is a great depiction of the deprivations and tragedies of WWII in the U.K., interwoven with a believable present-day police procedural. The suspense lasts until the last chapter.
Recommended for fans of Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie series and Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley series.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Orphan Master's Son

The library's Tuesday evening book group will discuss Adam Johnson's much lauded and Pulitzer Prize-winning 'The Orphan Master's Son' tonight at 7:30 in the reading room.

'Here's a chance to visit sealed-off North Korea. Johnson's protagonist is an orphan who starts out as a tunnel soldier and rises through the military ranks until he's set to challenge Kim Jong-Il himself. Along the way, we encounter what one character calls "the greatest North Korean love story ever told." Evidently a blend of personal story and political revelation, with thriller overtones thrown in for fun, this work is being positioned as a breakout for Johnson.' - from the publisher's blurb on our catalog.

The question is, can readers stomach visiting North Korea which is depicted as soul-suckingly depressing, deprived and and dehumanizing? Some readers will dive right in and follow this picaresque tale of Pak Jun Do whose adventures make Candide's look like a walk in the park. Other readers, more squeamish ones, may find this story where hard luck follows bad luck with very little breathing room for optimism, hard going.

New York Times review 
in which reviewer Michiko Kakutani rightly calls the book's tone 'harrowing,' and goes on to say that after years of research and travel to North Korea, Mr. Johnson was able to,
'transform that research into an operatic if somewhat long-winded tale that is at once satiric and melancholy, blackly comic and sadly elegiac.'

The Pulitzer Prizes website

The Miami Herald interview with Adam Johnson
in which the author acknowledges that his fictional story cannot be entirely truthful because of the blackout of information coming from North Korea, but he based his book on stories from defectors, extensive research and a visit to the country.