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Archive for the ‘mystery’ Tag

Hidden in Darkness   Leave a comment

Snowblind
I get on book kicks and my latest has been mysteries; they’re my reading guilty pleasure. It’s especially satisfying to come across something as well-written and intriguing as Snow Blind by Ragnar Jonasson.

Set in a small town in northern Iceland, Jonasson’s novel is dark –thanks to the limited hours of daylight so close to the Arctic Circle – and is filled with intelligent characters with plenty of positive traits and foibles – like most of us.

Ari Thor is in the process of completing his exams at the Reykjavik police academy when he’s offered a job in a small, but once-thriving fishing community on the other side of the country. Without consulting his live-in girlfriend, he accepts the position and leaves her behind.

What he initially encounters is the difficulty of fitting in where most of the residents have lived, if not all at least most, of their lives. He’s an outsider. He’s repeatedly told by his captain “Nothing ever happens here.”

The narrative is told in two different parts: one beginning in spring 2008 and ending in January 2009; the other, set off in separate chapters and in italics, describing a murder. The reader knows the two will intersect, but the question is not just when but how. Jonasson deftly teases curiosity while leaving very few clues along the way.

In the place where nothing happens, Ari Thor deals first with an accidental death and then the brutal beating of a woman. Yet, these are only part of the plot.

Snow Blind
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Minotaur Books, 2010
302 pages

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An Artful Mystery   Leave a comment

338691

A friend has talked about Louise Penny whodunits for years. I finally decided to check out the appeal for myself. The real mystery is what took me so long?

Using humor, a strong sense of place and an exceptionally-likeable main character in the form of Inspector Armand Gamache, Penny has a formula for success. In Still Life, her first foray into the genre, Gamache is brought in from Montreal to investigate the murder of a well-liked member of the small community of Three Pines.

There is an abundance of rcharacters for such a small town, which is actually more of a village. The only one I found extraneous was Agent Yvette Nichol, who is part of Garmache’s team. She’s new to investigation and it’s clear the inspector hopes to serve as her mentor. Through a series of misunderstandings and her own stubborn nature, Nichol falls short of everyone’s expectations – including her own.

The murder and subsequent efforts to solve it are intriguing. The victim, Jane Neal, is offed early (as in the first few sentences), yet Penny imbues a strong sense of amiability in her. Neal is later seen through the eyes of her friends, so even though she is not a “living” character, she remains a prominent one throughout the novel.

The pool of possible suspects is large with plenty of nuance and depth. Of course, it’s Gamache whose intelligence, sensitivity and humor are enough to make me want to read more about him and the investigations he leads.

Still Life
Four Bookmarks
Louise Penny
St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 2005
293 pages

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16130435
Coming of age can be a mystery, and Karen Brown has combined the two genres in The Longings of Wayward Girls.

The story begins with a 1974 news clipping about the abduction of a young girl, Laura Loomis, and moves back and forth between 1979 and the early 2000s. Laura remains a mystery throughout, while other secrets surface its place. The narrative instead focuses on Sadie Watkins as a creative, energetic young teenager and later as a married mother of two. It hardly seems possible that the two characters are the same; the adult Sadie lacks imagination. That is, until Ray Filey returns to town.

Set in a rural New England community, Brown’s descriptions of the landscape and close-knit neighborhood are intriguing and easy to visualize. The novel is also evocative of a time when parents thought nothing of letting their children roam nearby woods and streets. Or, when parents (in this case, mostly mothers) chain-smoked and drank their way through summer afternoons and evenings.

Sadie teeters on the edge of being a mean girl with childhood friend, Betty, following her lead. Ray is a few years older than Sadie. As a girl she was aware of his presence, although he was never part of her circle of friends. His interest in her as a woman is intriguing, but Sadie’s response to his appearance doesn’t entirely make sense, nor do her actions. However, Brown’s merging of the two themes does offersenough interest to see the novel to its conclusion.

The Longings of Wayward Girls
Three-and-a-half Bookmarks
Washington Square Press, 2013
337 pages

Rail Sights   4 comments


There’s a lot of hype surrounding Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train and I’m not quite sure why. Words like thrilling and unpredictable are used to describe it. I thought it was just OK; I finished it, but its grip was weak. Perhaps if I had cared more about the characters I’d have been more invested in the outcome.

The story is told from the viewpoints of Rachel, Megan and Anna. Rachel’s is the primary version conveyed. This title character’s life is dismal. She’s recently divorced and is an alcoholic. It’s no surprise these elements lead to a series of bad choices. It’s from Rachel’s vantage point on the daily commuter train that she imagines an idyllic life for the couple she names Jess and Jason. Then she sees something, or thinks she does.

Interspersed with Rachel’s account, thrown into question because of her drinking and poor emotional state, is Megan’s. She’s a tougher personality and cheats on her husband, Scott. When she goes missing, he’s the prime suspect.

Anna is married to Tom, who just happens to be Rachel’s ex. Although Anna is now living the life Rachel once had, she’s disdainful of Rachel. Anna and Tom live a few doors down from Megan and Scott.

The voices of the three women are distinct only by the experiences they share. Megan is definitely the most mysterious. Rachel’s self-pity and lack of self-control, while vividly described, make her unreliable and pathetic. In this regard, Hawkins’s writing is successful.

The Girl on the Train
Three Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2015
323 pages

 

Cold Crime   Leave a comment

 

The Ice Princess (Fjällbacka Series #1)

Camilla Lackberg’s The Ice Princess is my recent discovery in Scandinavian crime genre. She’s touted as Sweden’s version of Agatha Christie. While I might not go that far, I did enjoy the mystery set in Fjallbacka, a Swedish fishing village turned tourist community north of Goteborg.

It’s no surprise that within the first few pages a body, an apparent suicide, is discovered. The twists come in the form of small town connections. Erica, the second (living) person on the scene is a childhood friend of the victim, Alex. The two had lost touch with one another long ago, but Erica has fond memories of their friendship.

Erica, an author of biographies, is asked by Alex’s parents to write what amounts to an expanded obituary. They are convinced Alex did not kill herself. The more Erica learns of her estranged friend, the less likely it seems that Alex would have taken her own life.

Plenty of characters populate Lackborg’s novel, and surprisingly few are extraneous. Besides Erica, a major player is Patrik, a local police officer. They, too, had known each other as kids. As a boy, Patrik was enthralled by Erica. Alex’s death brings them together in more ways than one.

Lackberg doesn’t rely on the mystery; she includes romance, domestic violence and long-held secrets. The result is an engaging story that moves at a comfortable pace. It’s not necessarily a rapid-page turner, but is likely to keep you reading later at night than you might like.

The Ice Princess
Four Bookmarks
Pegasus Books, 2010
393 pages

Unlocking Secrets   3 comments

thirteenth tale

When I mentioned to a friend that I was reading Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, she was surprised it was new to me. It is, after all, a book for booklovers and a mystery, two aspects I find appealing. There is also a sense of the gothic, which typically doesn’t grab me. Yet, I had trouble putting the book down.

This story within a story is compelling on many levels. There’s Margaret Lea, a reclusive woman whose companions are the books in her father’s antiquarian bookshop. Although close to her father, her mother is distant, practically absent from family life. Margaret had a twin sister who died at birth, an event from which Mrs. Lea never recovered.

Margaret receives a letter from Vida Winter, considered one of Britain’s most prolific and beloved authors. Despite her popularity, Vida has creatively maintained her privacy. However, in poor health she summons Margaret to write her biography. In the process, dark secrets emerge.

Each character is transformed through the story telling. Margaret becomes softer as she learns about Vida’s mysterious and startling past. Vida, whose strength diminishes day by day also begins to demonstrate warmth and concern. The more Vida reveals about herself and her dysfunctional family (long before the term was coined), the more engrossing the tale becomes.

Vida tells about the twin sisters, Adeline and Emmaline, and just when the reader is certain to have determined who is who and what is what, Setterfield adds more ingredients into the tantalizing mix.

The Thirteenth Tale
Four Bookmarks
Washington Square Press, 2006
406 pages

 

Held in Suspense   Leave a comment

Child44

Child 44 begins in such a predictable manner, with a vignette from the past, it belies the true suspense of Tom Rob Smith’s novel. However, as the tale unfolds each twist and turn is a complete surprise.

In Stalin-era Russia, Leo Demidov is with the State Security Force. In the midst of investigating a possible traitor, he’s ordered to address the death of a colleague’s young son. The family is convinced the boy was murdered but as Leo notes, “If left unchecked, the groundless chatter about murder could grow like a weed, spreading through the community … making them question one of the fundamental pillars of their new society: there is no crime.” The family’s concerns are dismissed.

Although he’s guilty of cold-heartedly dealing with those who denounce Mother Russia through actual or perceived actions, Leo has a soft side. Smith establishes a tangible fear and mistrust that permeate the Russian culture. Leo has kicked in more than his share of doors and had citizens banished, or worse, but the tide changes and he becomes a hapless victim when he refuses to condemn his wife, Raisa.

Consequently, Leo is assigned menial tasks with  small town police force, but a girl’s murder captures his attention by its similarity to the death he had previously scorned. Thus begins a secret investigation, cross-country pursuit, and unraveling of long-held secrets.

This is a rapid-heart rate page turner. However, one fault lies in Leo’s nemesis: Vasili, a one-dimensional character in an otherwise realistic, albeit frightening, world.

Child 44

Four and a half Bookmarks
Grand Central Publishing, 2008
436 pages