I like a good mystery. In fact, the Beloved and I were just talking about mysteries this morning. I said that I use them as “palate cleansers” between other types of books. (Actually, it turns out that I’ve said that before while using the same title convention for a post. Ah well, so much for originality…)
That said, I really don’t expect anything earth-shattering out of mystery stories. I hope for good characters, maybe an interesting setting, and a writer that can keep me guessing for a while. Below are some of the ones that I’ve read over the last several months. Along with my measured expectations, I think my reviews tend to be more on the order of not-so-good = 2 stars, good = 3 stars, really good = 4 stars.
Red April by Santiago Roncagliolo is a serial murder mystery set in the countryside of Peru. This book was recommended to me by a friend that grew up in South America and she said the book did a good job of nailing the entrenched corruption in the society – in the police, the government, the Church, everyone. A prosecutor Félix Chacaltana Saldívar is called on to rubber stamp the death of a man found in a barn. Felix, who is portrayed as a bit of an OCD-addled simpleton, sort of Forrest Gump with a badge, dutifully follows up the case (more than any of the authorities truly want). Things turn uglier as the body count begins to rise right as important Holy Week festivities are getting into gear. This book had me feeling a little off-balance over its entire course, as Felix is such an odd protagonist, I was never sure if I was really rooting for him. The sense of how quickly order can dissolve into chaos in places like this part of Peru also plays into the tension of this really well executed mystery thriller. 4 stars.
Voices and The Draining Lake are the third and fourth English-translated mysteries by the Icelandic writer by Arnaldur Indridason and continue the investigations of Detective Erlandur and his team into some of the grimmer murders that occur in Reykjavik. Did I mention that these books are grim? They’re really grim. For example, Voices opens with the discovery of the body of a destitute hotel doorman who is half-dressed in a Santa suit and seems to have an unhealthy fixation on little boy choir members. Oooo-kay then. Erlandur runs into repeated stonewalling by the hotel’s brass and the man’s family. The creepy pedophilia really pervades this Christmas week mystery and as a reader I found myself echoing Erlandur with his “What the hell is wrong with these people?” feelings.
By comparison, The Draining Lake is like a breath of a springtime breeze. Well, as long as your spring contains a decomposing body that might or might not have been a Cold War spy. This book was very reminiscent (perhaps even a little derivative) of the very good Silence of the Grave, where long-buried bodies were unearthed in a housing development. As in that book, rather than stonewalling, Erlandur runs into the reality that people just don’t care that much to investigate a possible murder that occurred more than 40 years before.
I give them both 3 stars, though I think Voices is the better book. Super-creepy.
As prep to our visit to Berlin and Munich in 2008, I’d gotten the book Berlin Noir by Philip Kerr for the Beloved as a Christmas present. It’s a great collection of the first three Bernie Gunther detective novels, which I recommend wholeheartedly. Looking to score something like that for this year’s trip to France, I got her Deadly Slipper: A Novel of Death in the Dordogne by Michelle Wan.
The story involves an American woman’s search for clues about her sister, who disappeared in the Dordogne 20 years before. Her search leads her to enlist the aid of an English ex-pat horticulturalist (the titular slipper is a sort of orchid). She’s intense and he’s an introverted nerd. Their bickering and “chemistry” drive the investigation as they come across a whole host of French stereotypes: the lazy public servant, the brilliant-but-horny restaurateur, the fading “old money” family. Sorry, no Bernie anywhere in this group. Overall, it was okay, but a little tedious. 2 stars.
To Fetch a Thief and The Dog Who Knew Too Much are the third and fourth offerings of the Chet and Bernie mystery series by Spencer Quinn. Bernie Little runs his own Phoenix detective operation and is assisted by his big dog, Chet. In these stories, Chet is the narrator. As always, Chet is focused on the case and getting the perp by the pant-leg (that’s when he knows the case is over). Well, focused on the case as long as there aren’t snacks around or a squirrel going by – that sort of thing can make a dog distracted!
I think you really have to be a dog-person to like these stories because Chet is such a wonderfully realized “voice”. In “Fetch”, Chet and Bernie try to track down the elephant-napper of a local circus and end up in trouble “down Mexico way”. In The Dog Who Knew Too Much, Chet and Bernie get a much-needed break from the desert and head to the mountains of southern California to help search for a missing boy lost on a camping trip. Of the two, the latter is a better story, or maybe I just think that carnies are creepy. Fetch = 3 stars, TDWKTM = 4 stars.