Friday, October 29, 2010

Hide and Seek by Ian Rankin

Hide and Seek by Ian Rankin, 1990

The first novel in Ian Rankin's celebrated Inspector Rebus series, Knots and Crosses, (1987), blew me away with its emotional power, well-written mystery and its compelling, complex main character.

I'm tempted to say that Hide and Seek is even better. It is not as emotional or as quite as psychologically complicated, but it is a riveting, dark look at a rotting city, as well as being an excellent, ever-twisting mystery. It's a small masterpiece of crime fiction.

John Rebus, a detective in the Scottish city of Edinburgh, arrives on the scene of an apparent overdose, a drug-addicted young man who lies dead surrounded by signs of Satanic worship.

Rebus thinks there's more to the case than a simple overdose. With the aid of the deceased's rebellious girlfriend and a wary young constable, Rebus follows a trail of drugs, blackmail, occultism and murder, a trail that leads from the city's lowest depths to its most affluent heights.

The most important thing in a mystery novel is the mystery itself, and this one's a doozy. Rankin is a master of pacing. He doesn't go for big action scenes, but there's an undercurrent of constant danger that keeps you frantically flipping pages.

The detective is the second-most important component of the mystery novel, and in John Rebus, Rankin has hit a gold mine. Rebus is cranky, lonely, self-destructive and often cruel to his inferiors at the police station, yet he's a surprisingly likable protagonist. He's the kind of fascinating character that I would willingly follow through fifteen or twenty books.

The large cast of supporting characters is equally well-drawn. One of the highlights of the novel for me was the partnership of Rebus and young, up-and-coming constable Brian Holmes. Their relationship never became a one-dimensional buddy-movie rivalry; it's nuanced and understated.

Rankin's prose and dialogue is as quirky and razor-sharp as in the previous installment, a nice combination of readable and poetic:

What was it the old man, Vanderhyde, had said said? Something about muddying the water. Rebus had the gnawing feeling that the solution to these many conundrums was a simple one, as crystal clear as one could wish. The problem was that extraneous stories were being woven into the whole. Do I mix my metaphors? Very well then, I mix my metaphors. All that counted was getting to the bottom of the pool, muddy or no, and bringing up that tiny cache of treasure called the truth.

He knew, too, that the problem was one of classification. He had to break the interlinked stories into separate threads, and work from those. At the moment, he was guilty of trying to weave them all into a pattern, a pattern that might not be there. By separating them all, maybe he'd be in with a chance of solving each.
---(pages 152-153)

Perhaps best of all, the novel's conclusion is perfect, a difficult feat to pull off in a mystery novel. The central puzzle is satisfyingly resolved, we get a short, intense burst of action and then some sly set-up for the rest of the series.

As much as I enjoyed Knots and Crosses, Hide and Seek is in some ways a stronger, more mature novel. It's a thrilling, sometimes shockingly deep ride into the dark side of humanity, and I loved every page.

NEXT UP: The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

How Right You Are, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

How Right You Are, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse, 1960

The world of P.G. Wodehouse is really as different from our own--and as convincing--as Middle-earth or Philip Pullman's multiverse. It's a world where nothing bad every really happens, a world full of humor and joy.

The Jeeves and Wooster series has never failed to enchant me and How Right You Are, Jeeves is a delightful, hilarious entry into the canon.

When Jeeves leaves Bertie Wooster's side for his annual holiday, Wooster retires to his Aunt Dahlia's country house for what he thinks will be a relaxing visit. Since this is a Wodehouse novel, the house is a hotbed of trouble for the hapless Bertie. Among the fellow guests are Bobbie Wickham (a mischievous former flame of Bertie's), a New York playboy, a nosy mystery author, a psychologist disguised as a butler and the former headmaster of Bertie's grammar school, his boyhood nemesis.

Within hours of his arrival, Bertie finds himself trapped in a labyrinthine maze of drowning dachshunds, false engagements, missing cow-creamers, mistaken identity and Market Snodsbury's upcoming grammar school prize-giving. Only one man is brainy enough to get Bertie out of the soup: Jeeves.

The plot is exactly what we've come to expect from a Jeeves and Bertie story and that's a good thing. Wodehouse's devices may repeat themselves a bit, but the ridiculous intricacies of the plots are gloriously fun to follow.

This novel makes the bold move of having Jeeves off-stage for much of the action, which allowed Bertie to really wreak some hilarious havoc during the novel's first half. There's no comic set piece as glorious as Gussie Fink-Nottle's grammar school prize-giving in Right Ho, Jeeves (1934), but there wasn't a single page that didn't make me smile.

Another thing I love about this series is the many recurring characters and plotlines that are carried through the entire saga. In this novel, we see the beginning of a warm friendship between Roderick Glossop and Bertie, formerly enemies, and we see strained relations between Bobbie Wickham and Bertie, formerly head over heels for each other. These touches of continuity are simply delightful for the familiar reader.

Wodehouse is an extraordinary wordsmith with a staggering proficiency in comic timing and convincing, yet hilarious dialogue. In this passage, Bertie has a telephone conversation with the intimidating Aubrey Upjohn, who he's supposed to be blackmailing:

"Oh, Jeeves is the man's name?"

"Yes, Mr. Upjohn."

"Well, he carelessly omitted to pack the notes for my speech at Market Snodsbury Grammar School tomorrow."

"No, really! I don't wonder you're sore."

"Saw whom?"

"Sore with an r."


"No, sorry, I mean with an o-r-e."


"Yes, Mr. Upjohn?"

"Are you intoxicated?"

"No, Mr. Upjohn."

"Then you are driveling. Stop driveling, Wooster."

"Yes, Mr. Upjohn."
---(page 133)

There's no question: Wodehouse is an incredible master of language, which he uses to create humor and joy rather than complex works of important "literature."

That, when you boil it down, is the essence of the Jeeves and Wooster saga: Joy. It's as much fun as anyone is likely to have reading, yet as you read, you can only marvel at Wodehouse's technical skill, that he uses in such a wonderful way. How Right You Are, Jeeves is a shining example of a Jeeves novel, and a shining example of English comic writing at its best.

NEXT UP: Hide and Seek by Ian Rankin

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Hard Way by Lee Child

The Hard Way by Lee Child, 2006

Lee Child's Jack Reacher series is literary crack. Each novel is a blissfully thrilling blend of mystery and action. Child's lean writing is a combination of John D. MacDonald's and Elmore Leonard's. No other thriller writer gives me as much as pleasure as Child and The Hard Way is another exemplary entry in the Reacher canon.

Jack Reacher (the spiritual grandson of MacDonald's Travis McGee) is an ex-military cop who wanders around America, not staying in one place for more than a few days. His only permanent possessions are his bank card and his folding toothbrush. When he sees cruelty or injustice, he'll deal with it using his lethal skills-- and then move on.

In The Hard Way, Reacher is in New York when he witnesses a dead drop ransom payment. Before long, he's been hired by the head of a deadly mercenary group to find his abducted wife and daughter--and he isn't telling Reacher the whole truth.

Although the Reacher are technically thrillers, the mystery element is usually very strong, and The Hard Way has a fantastic mystery with several truly shocking twists and a conclusion that actually makes sense.

Not to say that the series' signature action isn't in fine form. The climax (which occurs, of all places, in a small English village) is pure kinetic pleasure. Child's clipped style is perfectly suited to action.

There's some nice character interactions, too. Per the formula, Reacher picks up a female companion, an ex-FBI agent saddled with the unfortunate name of Lauren Pauling. Their romance is nicely understated, although nothing highly memorable.

Always a dynamic pacer, Child keeps up the series standard without resorting to a string of over-the-top action scenes. The first two-thirds of the book are really more of a mystery than a true thriller, but the final segment more than makes up for it in badass-ery:

Reacher stared at it for a moment. Then he put it in his pocket. He buried the longer knife to its hilt in Perez's chest. Tucked the shorter knife in his own shoe. Kicked the corkscrew and the broken flashlight into the shadows. Used his thumb to clean Perez's blood and frontal lobe off of the G-36's monocular lens. Picked up the MP5 submachine gun and slung it over his left shoulder.

Then he headed back north and east toward the barns.

Reacher, alone in the dark. Doing it the hard way
--- (pages 459-460)

The Jack Reacher novels are just so much fun, unadulterated reading pleasure. Even the occasional unnecessary political aside can't dull the novel's appeal. Writing a novel as truly thrilling as this ain't as easy as it looks and Child is at the top of his game. The Hard Way is about as entertaining a book I've read in the last few months. Until the next Reacher adventure anyway.

NEXT UP: How Right You Are, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

All Mortal Flesh by Julia Spencer-Fleming

All Mortal Flesh by Julia Spencer-Fleming, 2006

I recently met Julia Spencer-Fleming at a book festival. She was charming, witty and personable, and I was lucky enough to get two of my books autographed. Her Millers Kill series is truly superior mystery fiction, and All Mortal Flesh is the best one yet. It's a pretty incredible read.

During the previous four novels, Russ Van Alstyne and Clare Fergusson have faced down murderers, helicopter crashes, near-drowning and bombs. But the stories have all been crimes that they are investigating, not crimes that directly involve them.

The fifth installment changes that with its jolting shocker of a beginning: Russ's wife Linda is found murdered and mutilated in their home, mere weeks after the two of them seperated because of Russ's feelings for Clare.

Russ goes on the hunt for Linda's killer, aided by the increasingly guilty Clare. Things become even more complicated when a state policewoman becomes convinced that Russ is the murderer, forcing him to go on the run.

I really can't say anything more about the plot except that A) it would make Agatha Christie green with envy, B) it's stay-up-all-night-riveting and C) it delivers one shocking twist that ranks among the finest I've read in a contemporary mystery.

But, as always, it's the two main characters that really matter, and both Russ and Clare are in top form here. The two have emerged as such deep, well-rounded creations, and their relationship only gets more compelling and complex in this novel.

Making the novel revolve around Linda's death is a brilliant move. This is what fans of the series have been waiting for since the first book, but Spencer-Fleming masterfully demonstrates that this event can only push Russ and Clare farther apart.

The prose is better than ever, too. Spencer-Fleming brought her A-game to this novel and it shows. Russ finding out about his wife's murder:

The terrible thing was here. He felt himself crack open, his jaw unhinge, his lungs constrict. His field of vision shrank, and his head filled with a loud, dry-edged shuffle as his mind laid down every card in its deck. Linda relaxing in her favorite chair at the end of the day. The two of them shouting at each other over the hood of her car. A funeral--he had never planned a funeral, didn't know how to do it, didn't know who to call. Oh, God, he was going to grow feeble and old alone, without his wife, his beautiful wife. . .

The way it would feel, his finger tightening on the trigger as he pumped onetwothreefourfive rounds into her killer. Just like that.

Memory. Guilt. Confusion. Self-pity.

--(page 37)

The plot twists and turns until the teriffic climax, which brings the mystery to an unexpected and satisfying close. There's no over-the-top action, but it's an excellent conclusion. It's the shattering emotional moment that closes the novel that really leaves you hungry for the next installment, though.

All Mortal Flesh is a triumphant acheivment for Spencer-Fleming and the series. It's a pretty fantastic novel, from every angle. It's a wonderful mystery, but it's also a deep, insightful look at a tragic love triangle.

NEXT UP: The Hard Way, by Lee Child.

Friday, October 8, 2010

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, 1995-2000

For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and your daemons shall assume their true forms, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to reveal the true form of one's daemon, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

And the eyes of them both were opened, and they saw the true form of their daemons, and spoke with them.
--(The Golden Compass, page 273).

Let's get one thing straight: Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy is as much children's fiction as The Lord of the Rings is. The saga's incredible passages of violence, sexuality, cruelty, horror and spiritual complexity makes these books as dark and deep as any adult fantasy series.

The trilogy is hard to encapsulate. It is the story of hundreds of overlapping worlds, the story of a man bent on destroying God, the story of two children caught in the midst of a metaphysical war. It has as much action and adventure as could be hoped for, and memorable characters, and complicated themes. It's a masterpiece of fantasy fiction, no question.

Pullman and his three novels have garnered incredible controversy, and rightly so. The trilogy is everything that its detractors claim it to be. Do I agree with all of Pullman's spiritual/philosophical/moral points? No, I do not, but he makes them compellingly and (for the most part) without too much ham-handedness.

And the trilogy is not a dry religious treatise. It's an epic, emotionally engaging bildungsroman that holds together astonishingly well over its 900+ page length. It's a true feast for book lovers.

The first volume, The Golden Compass is a rip-roaring adventure in a steampunk-y parallel universe. It has armored bears, exploding zeppelins, mysterious prophecies and a plucky young heroine. It's an engaging, smartly written fantasy novel that merely hints at what's to come.

Book two, The Subtle Knife is a deeper, more complex novel that even manages to top the first novel in terms of action. The world-cutting knife is a glorious invention and the plot thickens and twists like a thriller.

The conclusion, The Amber Spyglass, is the longest, darkest volume in the cycle, with the widest scope. Although I had a few problems with Spyglass's first half (a lot of subplots, too many new characters), the ending is truly magnificent, as powerful and emotional a finish as any I've ever read.

My only major complaint with the cycle is that Pullman's hatred of organized religion comes through too strongly, and isn't as well-developed as other aspects of the book. Every single person belonging to the Christian religion is, without exception, portrayed as a cruel, dangerous zealot. For an author who can make characters as morally conflicted as Pullman can, this seems like a truly lazy way to establish the trilogy's villains. The sections of the novels dealing with The Authority--read: God-- is also too highly colored with Pullman's own prejudices.

But in a cycle as huge as His Dark Materials (I read all three books as one massive novel, which definitely enhances this impression), this isn't a deal-breaking misstep. There's so much to enjoy in Pullman's world.

The main characters, Lyra and Will, are fantastic. Frankly, in the first volume, I found Lyra a little annoying, but in retrospect, her character development was pretty outstanding. Will is also an incredible creation; he couldn't be farther from the stereotype of the "heroic little boy." He's an incredibly dark character.

Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter, the other two central figures (and Lyra's parents) are just as fascinating. Imagine Severus Snape and a female Ben Linus interacting, and you get an idea of how layered and complex their motives and desires are. Their eventual sacrifice is perfect, especially because no other characters actually know what they did.

Pullman's powers of invention rank next to J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling. His multiverse is an incredibly colorful place, full of strange creatures and bizarre landscapes. The armored polar bears are his most stunningly original creations.

The end of the story is amazingly good, considering the buildup. The mysteries are resolved, the characters dealt with and the series concludes with an incredibly moving moment of grace and sacrifice that's among the most heartbreaking passages of fiction I've read.

It's an incredible trilogy and indisputably a modern classic. It's a work that I know I will return to, to again be swept away by the scope and scale and dizzying emotional power. Reading His Dark Materials is like reading The Wizard of Oz or The Lord of the Rings. It's a work of fantastic fiction that changes the parameters of the genre itself.

Also, there's battling armored polar bears, and they're awesome.

NEXT UP: Julia Spencer-Fleming's fifth Russ Van Alstyne and Clare Fergusson mystery, All Mortal Flesh.