Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Review: The Bone Yard, Michelle Gagnon

Mira, 2008, ISBN 978-0-7783-2539-0, 376 pages

I feel the need to start with a "how this came about" introduction.

I have a SecondLife account under the avatar name Max Batra. As one of the Second Life Librarians, I manage Mystery Manor on Info Island to promote mystery literature. I was in-world last August and received an IM inviting me to an author presentation. I couldn't make it but later went to the Athena Island Writers Club to see if there was any information about the event. I found a poster with the cover of Bone Yard advertising Michelle Gagnon's appearance. I went to Michelle's web site, read about her and her books, and decided to read Bone Yard. If you are curious how this sort of virtual event is handled, here is a transcript from Michelle's virtual appearance.

I almost didn't find the book in Barnes and Nobel. For some reason they put it in Fiction rather than Mysteries. Michelle told me that Borders does shelve it in the Crime/Thriller section.

On to the review.

The skeletal remains of five, possibly more, bodies have been found off the Appalachian Trail in the Berkshires on both sides of the border between Vermont and Massachusetts. FBI Agent Kelly Jones has her vacation canceled and is asked to form a task force and advise local law enforcement. Since there is no evidence that any bodies were transported across state lines, she doesn't have jurisdiction. She does carry the threat of Federal involvement. She brings along Dr. Howard Stuart, a forensic anthropologist from the Smithsonian.

From the locals, her task force includes Massachusetts Detective Lieutenant Bill Doyle and from Vermont, Lieutenant Monica Lauer of the State Bureau of Criminal Investigation. It's obvious that Monica and Doyle do not along - Monica needles Doyle constantly and Doyle is sullen and hostile. Kelly wonders if they can put aside their differences for the sake of the investigation. Monica, at least, accepts Kelly's role in the investigation. Doyle's opinion is that the investigation is a waste of time and manpower and would prefer to write the whole thing off to accidental hiker deaths and/or Native American burial sites. Anything but a dump site, a boneyard.

Dr. Stuart makes an observation about the remains of a recent victim that gives the task force something tangible to use to identify who he was. The investigation moves ahead with Kelly and Monica having to work around Doyle's lack of commitment.

There is no lack of books featuring serial killers available which can work for and against an author particularly a relatively new one like Gagnon. Serial killer stories continue to fascinate readers so there is a market. How does an author then make their work stand out? Really hitting the gruesome details is one way. I liked how Gagnon approached the subject. The forensic examinations and procedural appeal to me as a reader more than the killer's methods. You need enough detail establish the kind of criminal we have but not enough to make the reader feel like a voyeur. My opinion, my tastes.

The characters are interesting, nicely developed, and the reader feels a connection with Kelly and Monica. Doyle provides the friction and I liked the way Gagnon held off giving revealing motivations until well into the story. She also has the character of Dwight whose involvement adds an interesting dimension to the investigation. Sorry for sounding cryptic but I can't say much more about Dwight without giving away major plot points. He is oddly sympathetic at times.

The plot doesn't move along at thriller speed but is appropriately paced. I'm a procedural junkie and would much rather see a layered investigation.

Gagnon also handles an issue in a way that doesn't annoy me. The conflict between local law enforcement and the FBI is touched upon but not made a major focus. I asked a former homicide detective who had worked with the FBI and he said that they are a good bunch to work with and that their heavy-handed treatment of local law enforcement doesn't happen. It really grates on me when the locals refer to the FBI as the "feebies" in stories.

The author also works in a brief description of the ViCAP, the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, and the reluctance of local law enforcement to embrace it. From what I've read this is a realistic attitude. There is a lengthy form of several hundred questions to be filled out to add an incident to the database and local law enforcement agencies often don't feel that they have the time.

Bone Yard is the second of Gagnon's books to feature FBI Agent Kelly Jones. The first is The Tunnels and I like Gagnon's writing enough to add it to my "future read" list

Bone Yard
is recommended if you like serial killer stories with an emphasis on the investigation but enough gruesome detail to establish that this is one sick killer who has to be stopped.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Veterans Day Rememberance - Mack A. Lundy Jr.

My father passed away in a state veterans home in Florida last year.

At 19 he went to war, serving as a radio operator and waist gunner on a B-24 heavy bomber. On a bombing run over Vienna, Austria on 29 May 1944, his aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire. With much of the flight controls shot away, they tried to make it to the Adriatic Sea but had to bail out over Yugoslavia. The entire crew survived but were captured and spent the remainder of the war as POWs. My father was in Stalag Luft VIIa when it was liberated on 29 April 1945.

He never had much to say about that time but looking back I can see what a profound affect it had on him.

You can see more photographs from WWII here.

And more photographs from his life here.

The pilot of Dad's aircraft, Roy Daniels, is the last survivor of that mission. He wrote a book which I discussed here.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Review: The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

Scholastic Press, 2008, ISBN 978-0-439-02348-1, 374 pages.

On occasion, I read something other than crime fiction and this is one of those times.

The Hunger Games is a young adult novel set in a dystopian vision of the U.S. The country is ruled from The Capital, located somewhere near the Rockies. Twelve districts supply The Capital with resources. There was a thirteenth distruct but it was obliterated during an uprising against the government.

Each of the districts takes care of a specific need - agriculture, luxury goods, coal, etc. Where The Capital is technologically advanced and the inhabitants live a life of ease, the districts are kept at a bare, grubby, miserable, substance level with starvation a real possibility.

Once a year the Hunger Games are held to commemorate the revolt that destroyed the thirteenth colony. The Capital plays it as a major celebration but it is a reminder to the districts of what can happen if they get out of line. Each year, a boy and girl, called tributes, between the ages of twelve and eighteen are chosen by lottery to represent their district in the games. The twenty-four young people are forced to fight to the death in an outdoor area that changes from year to year. The contest is televised to The Capital and the districts. The winner gets a house and freedom from work for life. He or she also has the responsibility of mentoring future tributes from the district.

Katniss Everdeen, sixteen years old, takes the place of her younger sister to represent district twelve, known as the Seam. District 12 supplies coal and Katniss' father was a miner who died in an explosion. Kitniss has supported her mother and sister by illegally hunting and knows that she might have a chance where her sister would have none. Joining Katniss is Peeta, the baker's son.

This theme has been done before in Battle Royale, a much more violent Japanese novel and manga series. The Hunger Games takes a different approach to a government's oppression of its people and is an interesting, compelling, thought provoking, and well written story.

The character of Katniss as the resourceful, rebel teenager who takes on adult responsibilities is well developed and realistic. I can see a teenager growing up in those circumstances acting the way she does. I thought of Heinlein's female characters as I read this novel. I can also see myself as a sixteen year old loving the book.

The Hunger Games works well as a story of adventure and survival but also puts the reader in the uncomfortable position of considering "how would I act in those circumstances." With dystopian stories you also look for parallels in our society, could this happen, are there similar examples of this sort of oppression in our history.

This is book one in a series and I look forward to seeing where Collins takes the story.

Collins is also the author of the Underland Chronicles, a series for juveniles that I also recommend.

Review: the Snake Stone

Picador, 2007, ISBN 978-0-312-42802-0, 290 pages.

Thanks to Crime Scraps for to opportunity to win this book in one of its devilishly convoluted contests.

The rich backdrop of Istanbul in the mid-1800s is again the setting for latest investigation by Yashim, the eunuch with connections to the Palace. This time, the case is more personal. His friend, Stanislaw Palewski the Polish ambassador, brings a French archaeologist, Maximilien Lefevre, to dinner at Yashim's apartment. Neither Palewski nor Yashim care much for Lefevre. He is a boor and unappreciative of the food that Yashim has prepared. He also appears to be looking for the snake heads from the Serpent Column currently hidden in Palewski's residency. He may have other treasures in his sights. Yashim learns from other sources that Lefevre is not considered an honest archaeologist and not above theft of antiquities.

Later, Lefevre comes to Yashim looking for a safe way out of Istanbul. His investigations have made him a target of unknown persons who do not approve of unknown things being uncovered. Yashim finds him passage on a ship leaving for Italy and thinks he has seen to last of him. However, after the ship has sailed, his body, partially eaten by dogs, is found near the French Embassy.

While Yashim is not seriously considered a suspect, he was the last person in Istanbul to have seen him alive. Yashim fears that being mentioned in the report prepared by the French Ambassador will damage his reputation, make people think of him as unlucky, make it impossible for him to work for the Palace. Yashim need to find the truth about the murder before the French Ambassador submits his report to the Palace.

At the same time, parallel events are occurring. Market place merchants have been severely beaten and killed. There is much fear amongst the other merchants and Yashim learns of a shadowy Greek organization called the Hetira that may be involved. Also, the wife of a wealthy shipping merchant hires Yashim to find out what business a Frenchman (Lefevre) had with her husband.

Istanbul itself is one of the main characters in the novel. It is treated as a living entity and Goodwin is excellent in showing us what makes it live. We again visit the markets that feed to people but also see how water is delivered and distributed throughout the city. Hint: if you saw the James Bond film, From Russia with Love, then you've seen one of the locations that plays a major part in this book.

I hate to use the expression "cultural melting pot" but that is the only way to describe Istanbul. It makes for rich descriptions of Armenians, Greeks, Jews, and Muslims contributing to the life of the city. This time we learn more of the history of the Greeks and how Constantinople became Istanbul.

Yashim's complete back story is still not revealed though we get another flash from when he was made a eunuch. Still not why or exactly by whom. It looks like Goodwin is going to parcel out this information.

I continue to enjoy the pacing this series. Yashim is a intuitive investigator. He observes, questions, and files away what he learns. Out of these bits and pieces the truth begins to manifest itself. There is one scene in particular that I enjoyed. Yashim is preparing a meal and an ingredient out of place leads him to important clue. It is a deft bit of writing that give us a look at Yashim's thought processes.

Yashim's next investigation takes him out of Istanbul to Venice, Italy in The Bellini Card. Look for it in March, 2009.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

From the files: History of women crime Writers, part 1

Maio, Kathleen L. "A Strange and Fierce Delight": The Early Days of Women's Mystery Fiction (full text)
Chrysalis: A Magazine of Women's Culture, No. 10. pp.93-105 (ceased publication)

If you had asked me to name early women writers of mysteries I would have answered Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. That's the point that Maio starts with, that most people can't name writers before the Golden Age. In fact, Maio shows that you can go back more than fifty years before the Golden Age and find women authors of mystery and crime fiction.

The movement started to gain influence with women sensation novelists evidenced by the writings of Mrs. Henry Wood who published East Lymne in 1861.
Mystery problems were a favorite plot device of Mrs. Wood. they concerned anything from missing wills to missing wives, and each problem was "fully and properly unravelled, in a workmanlike manner and without any loose ends."

The plots of stories by sensation novelists Mary Elizabeth Braddon (Lady Audley's Secret, 1862) and Catherine L. Pirkis (A Red Sister, 1891) are discussed in length. A common thread through the stories are strong, assertive, sometimes "unfeminine" women triumphing. In some case a woman is even the villain.

Mystery fiction was also pushed along by the dime novel. Maio points out that
The dime novel is generally associated with the male writers and readers, but in fact many women authors and editors worked for the dime houses as well.

Unfortunately, the dime novel was not printed to last which explains why the works of these women writers are not well known or even preserved.

One of he most prolific woman writer of detective stories was Anna Katherine Green who is identified by most histories of detective fiction as the first woman writer of pure detective fiction. This status for Green is disputed by Maio but Green was extremely popular and counted President Woodrow Wilson among her readers.

Maio goes on to profile many more writers and their works. Again, the common thread is that these stories fulfilled a need for escape literature much more important the mystery novel was to women! Mystery fiction was perfect as female escape fiction: a vision of women being strong, protecting themselves and each other; often, quite literally, women getting away with murder.

As the Golden Age of mystery fiction approached, this treatment of women in mystery fiction began to fade. Mystery writer and antifeminist Carolyn Wells wrote in 1913
the introduction of the feminine element in a Detective Story is subject to certain and definite rules. A victim she may be, a suspect she may be, but only in rare cases and when exceptionally well done, should she be the criminal...the experienced reader of detective stories feels fairly sure that an attractive feminine suspect is not the real criminal.

This article is written from a feminist perspective so Maio has no problem declaring that
The age of the mystery amazon, the strong sleuth the cunning criminal, the runaway wife-hero -the age of our literary "anarchism" - was over. And the evidence indicates that she was murdered by the patriarchy. The rigid Poe/Doyle formula killed her.

Fiery rhetoric aside, I can't argue her premise. This historical perspective makes the current role of women in mystery/crime fiction all the more interesting. We seem to come full circle. Strong, assertive, unconventional women characters are prominent these days: Zoe Sharp's Charlie Fox,Sara Paretsky's VI Warshawski, Chelsea Cain's scary serial killer Gretchen Lowell sprang to mind as I wrote this.

I don't think these early women writers of crime fiction would have any problem adapting their themes to the 21st century.

I have another article discussing early women mystery writers that I will feature in a later post. It is also from a journal that has ceased publication so I am comfortable providing the full text for it as well.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Review: The Janissary Tree, Jason Goodwin

Picador, 2006, 978-0-312-42613-2, 299 p.
2007 Edgar Award for Best Mystery

I haven't been drawn much to historical fiction but when I won a copy of The Snake Stone at Crime Scraps I thought I ought to read the series from the beginning and so picked up The Janissary Tree. It is quite a good read and I'm looking forward to starting The Snake Stone this weekend.

The story takes place in Istanbul, Turkey in 1836 and the Ottoman Empire is in danger of crumbling. Yashim Togaly is a free lance investigator who often works for the palace and the sultan. Yashim has a talent for languages, observation, and blending. He is also a eunuch which allows him special access to parts of the Palace, such as the harem, that would would mean death for other men.

Yashim is called upon by the seraskier, the commander of the army, to investigate the disappearance of four army officer cadets. The matter is pressing because the sultan is planning to announce major reforms during a military review and the Janissaries might be involved. The Janissaries were the sultan's mercenary guards who became corrupt and were crushed ten years before. Are they poised to reassert themselves? At the same time, one of the sultan's harem girls has been found strangled and, furthermore, the Napoleon jewels of the queen mother, the valide sultan, have been stolen. So Yashim has three cases to solve in a short time, one a threat to the empire and the other two a threat to his standing in the Palace.

I think that part of my reluctance to approach historical fiction is the suspicion that that the history will overwhelm the story. Zoe Sharp, in writing about the things she learns as background for her thrillers, says
The danger, of course, is that the research, instead of complementing the story, becomes the reason for it. It’s horribly easy to become so caught up in all this cool stuff you’ve discovered, that you try and squeeze it in at the expense of the storytelling craft. To forget that it’s there to service the story, not to take over from it.

But what immediately appealed to me about The Janissary Tree is that Goodwin is able to work in much information about the Ottoman Empire -- the culture, the politics -- without delivering lectures. For example, Yashim's best friend is the Polish Imperial ambassador Stanislaw Palewski. Within the action of the story we learn that Poland as a separate country has ceased to exist and his status, or lack of, contributes to the story. An of course Yashim's investigation requires that he look carefully into the Janissaries and what contributed to their fall ten years before.

Yashim is himself a fascinating character. We learn early that he is a eunuch and get a hint at how it came about but not why. Outwardly Yashim is a calm and thoughtful person but he has much inner anger and suffering at what is denied him. It is interesting that he can accept his friend Stanislaw's joke that together they make a whole man.

In the course of his investigation Yashim moves amongst the trade people and we learn about the guild structure. Goodwin is excellent at capturing the sights, sounds, smells, and street bustle of Istanbul but it blends into enhances the story.

Food and cooking have an important role in Yashim's life and we see him selecting, preparing, and cooking meals several times in the story and his skills are much appreciated by Stanislaw. For Westerners whose kitchens might have hundreds of implements, it is intriguing to see what Yashim can do with very little. Cooking is also a motif applied to other parts of the story but I will let the reader discover those themselves.

As as librarian myself, I enjoyed the several scenes that take place in the Palace Archives. There isn't a lot of detail on how things are stored and retrieved but we get a sense of the importance that ready access to information plays in the running of an empire.

I did find the conclusion to the main story - the disappearance of the four officers and a possible revolt against the sultan -- a little confusing and perhaps rushed but not enough to detract from my enjoyment of the book.

The Janissary Tree has sparked in me an interest in historical fiction and I give it high marks.