book beginnings on Friday: Mystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

mystery

I have for you today a charming, classically styled mystery, republished any day now from a 1937 original. It begins innocuously, even innocently:

The Great Snow began on the evening of December 19th. Shoppers smiled as they hurried home, speculating on the chances of a White Christmas. Their hopes were dampened when they turn on their wireless to learn from the smooth impersonal voice of the B.B.C. announcer that an anticyclone was callously wending its way from the North-West of Ireland; and on the 20th the warmth arrived, turning the snow to drizzle and the thin white crust to muddy brown.

But oh, it won’t stay so!

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville

Two historical storylines, great evil, and an abiding mystery combine into one sinister and memorable fairy tale for the stout of heart.

gretel

As the title Gretel and the Dark suggests, Eliza Granville’s debut novel is a grim, spooky fairy tale. But keeping with the nature of any good fairy tale, there is another layer: it is also a meditation on historical good and evil, set both in Nazi Germany and fin de siècle Austria.

In 1899, a shockingly beautiful young woman is rescued off the street and delivered to the home of celebrated Viennese psychoanalyst Josef Breuer. She claims to have no identity, so the besotted Josef calls her Lilie, a name that will come to have greater significance than he originally intended. She is emaciated, bruised and beaten, hair shorn, with numbers inked on her arm. The story she tells is simply not possible: when questioned, Lilie tells Josef that she is not human but a machine, sent to kill a monster, whom she must find before he grows too large. She frightens him with her dreamy fantasies of how she’ll do it–”it doesn’t take long to kick someone to death”–but she casts an irresistible spell, and Josef (and his equally smitten gardener) is driven to puzzle out the truth of her history and the abuses she has experienced.

In the parallel plot, told in alternate chapters set several decades later, a little girl named Krysta pouts as the world around her changes. Her father works in a “zoo” during the days and can’t stop washing his hands at night; she is surrounded by unfriendly people, and retreats into her imagination to avoid the hazards and hatred she can’t understand. As her personal situation deteriorates and her circle of trusted acquaintances shrinks, Krysta hopes to save herself using the fairy tales on which she was raised–even, or especially, the nasty ones, with wolves, witches, beheadings and gore.

In precise balance and crafted in lovely, lyrical language, Gretel and the Dark is a masterpiece of fantasy, horror, childhood innocence and the evils of both our innermost imaginings and our shared history. Deliciously chilling and both fantastical and gravely real, with momentum building throughout, Granville’s extraordinary debut holds its crucial secrets to the last, adding suspense to its virtues. The connection between the not-entirely-likeable little Krysta and the enigmatic Lilie remains an open question until the final pages, and the power of imagination and storytelling is a prominent theme. This chilling, fantastical tale will simultaneously entertain and provoke serious contemplation on the depths of human depravity.


This review originally ran in the October 7, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 10 cherries.

Teaser Tuesdays: Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

gretel

This is a delightful blend of dark, gloomy fairy tale, historical fiction, and horror. I don’t want to say anything more about it at this point, but I think I’ve found a real winner.

For now, enjoy these lines, which are a fine example of the emphasis placed on the importance of storytelling.

“When I make up stories I’ll write them down so they won’t disappear or be changed.”

Greet shrugs. “Then they won’t be proper stories, will they?”

Also, who doesn’t love a little girl who thinks this:

When I grow up I shall be a famous author like Carol Lewis or Elle Franken Baum, but the girls in my books will be explorers, they’ll fly planes and fight battles, not play down holes with white rabbits or dance along brick roads with a silly scarecrow and a man made out of metal.

Stay tuned. Gretel and the Dark looks like a star.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Wayfaring Stranger by James Lee Burke

Beautifully composed and tragic, James Lee Burke’s 35th novel is a sweeping historical epic of war and the American dream.

stranger

James Lee Burke is famous for a long-running mystery series starring detective Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcel; two series centered on Billy Bob and Hackberry Holland; and stand-alone novels and story collections that all evoke the beauty, heartache and social injustice of Louisiana and Texas (among other locales). His 35th book, Wayfaring Stranger, tells a historical and sometimes fantastical story of the birth of Big Oil, the legacy of World War II and the far-reaching influences of Bonnie and Clyde.

In the opening pages, young Weldon Holland fumes at his grandfather, Hackberry, who was a poor parent to Weldon’s mother and is now poised to have her locked away and electroshocked. It’s the early 1930s, and Weldon’s father is gone, looking for work. Four trespassers in a 1932 Chevrolet Confederate challenge Weldon and Grandfather on their ranch, and the confrontation ends with Weldon firing a shot through the back windshield at Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow and two of their associates. This interaction casts a long shadow over the rest of Weldon’s life.

His story resumes in 1944 when he ships out for England as a second lieutenant. Weldon sees action in Normandy, particularly Saint-Lô, and the Ardennes; he digs Sergeant Hershel Pine out of a collapsed foxhole in the snow after an attack, and together they rescue a beautiful Spanish Jew named Rosita from an abandoned death camp. The three walk across enemy territory, lose toes to frostbite, fight tuberculosis, and are eventually separated. After the war, Weldon finds and marries Rosita, and Hershel turns up on Grandfather’s Texas ranch.

Together they establish the Dixie Belle Pipeline Company, using Nazi tank technology, Hershel’s welding skills and nose for oil, and Weldon’s family connections to build a minor empire. But the old money in Houston’s exclusive River Oaks neighborhood is offended–by their success and their humble upbringings, and particularly by Rosita’s heritage. And thus enter two of Burke’s favorite subjects: the evil lurking in the everyday, and the hero’s struggle to repress the evil within himself. Hershel’s wife, Linda Gail, creates more conflict: her actions endanger both business and family success, especially when she gets “discovered” and shipped out to Hollywood.

Burke’s fans will recognize his lyrical strengths regarding the themes of social justice and class struggle, violence set to a stunning backdrop of natural beauty and destruction, and a Gulf Coast region that includes historically accurate details to delight Texas and Louisiana natives. He creates strong and convincing characters on the sides of both right and wrong, and through them writes a compelling American history. Weldon investigates his father’s disappearance, Linda Gail’s unfaithfulness, and the evil forces that have targeted the well-being of his and Hershel’s families; but this is not a mystery. In fact, perhaps more than any of Burke’s previous work, Wayfaring Stranger is a tender love story, proving yet again his versatility and skill in creating gorgeous, luscious, painful stories of the American experience.


This review originally ran in the June 26, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 pipe joints.

The Mad and the Bad by Jean-Patrick Manchette

Fans of classic noir will be entranced by this spare, hard-boiled novel of suspense translated from the French.

mad and bad

Jean-Patrick Manchette’s The Mad and the Bad was originally published in French (Ô Dingos, Ô Châteaux!) in 1972. Donald Nicholson-Smith’s 2013 translation is the first into English, and is introduced here by American crime writer James Sallis.

Michel Hartog is an architect, made fabulously wealthy by the sudden death of his brother and sister-in-law. Along with their riches, he has inherited the responsibility of caring for their spoiled and difficult son, Peter, age “six or seven.” Michel has a reputation for employing the damaged, crippled and ill, so it is in character that he would use his wealth to have a shockingly beautiful young woman released from an insane asylum to look after his nephew. Julie Ballanger is rightfully suspicious of her new patron; the eccentric Michel immediately supplies her with alcohol, which she had learned to avoid in her former home, and it mixes poorly with her tranquilizers and antidepressants.

A killer named Thompson and three semi-competent thugs have been hired to execute Julie and Peter, but an ulcer is eating Thompson from the inside out, and his is a race against time. After Julie and Peter are kidnapped from a public park by Thompson’s men, the madwoman and her young charge manage to escape and race for a labyrinthine estate in the mountains that Julie saw in a picture Michel carries. She hopes to find her employer and safety there, but in fact finds neither. The reader wonders if Thompson will get to Julie and Peter before his stomach gets to him; meanwhile, the remote mountain fortress holds an unexpected surprise.

Manchette’s plot is straightforward, and his characters’ motives are fairly simple, if profoundly disquieting: to kill, to survive, to inflict pain or to avoid it. The bulk of the story is devoted to character sketches and explorations of those simple, disturbing motivations. The dialogue is spare, almost dreamlike, and Manchette’s settings tend toward the cinematic. Special attention is paid to architectural features; bare white walls, opulent yet sterile, are the perfect backdrop for blood splatters. Shots are fired, large tables are turned, fires are set and cars are driven into crowds. The Mad and the Bad is odd and gruesome, but maintains a twisted sense of humor throughout.

Nicholson-Smith’s translation is unadorned, a perfect match for Manchette’s style, which is sparse and tersely written but with an artistic eye for detail. Julie and Peter flee, Thompson pursues them doubled over in agony, and the reader is well satisfied by the end of the suspense.


This review originally ran in the June 24, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 croissants.

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

A detective novel by the horror master in which a mass murderer torments a retired cop who fights back.

mr. mercedes

Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes opens in a present-day depressed Midwestern metropolis, where retired detective Bill Hodges is haunted by the one who got away. It has been several years now, but he can still see the job fair, the long lines of unemployed people who’d waited overnight in the cold, the ghostly gray Mercedes accelerating through the crowd, the gristle and gore dripping from its fender as it drove off. Hodges is considering suicide when he receives a letter from someone claiming to be the Mercedes Killer.

Hodges is reinvigorated by a second chance at solving the cold case, with a few unlikely allies. The neighbor kid who mows Hodges’s lawn contributes computer skills and a surprisingly strong sounding board for new theories. The sister of the car’s original owner is both a delightful foil to the former cop’s depression and a potential love interest. Her niece brings the challenge of dealing with mental illness, but also a steely resolve, to this dubious crime-fighting team. While tracking Hodges’s efforts, Mr. Mercedes simultaneously follows the Mercedes Killer himself. He’s a loner who works two jobs, lives with his mother and attracts no attention, but harbors creepy inclinations worthy of Stephen King.

King’s fans will recognize his talents with suspense, finely drawn Americana and the horror of pure evil lurking in the everyday. His characters are as true-to-life and likeable as ever. As the improbable heroes and the Mercedes Killer rush toward a crashing finish, Mr. Mercedes is proof yet again that King can still terrify his readers without invoking the supernatural.


This review originally ran in the June 3, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 ice creams.

Laidlaw by William McIlvanney

A literary Scottish noir mystery from the 1970s–heavy on character, setting and lyricism–lives up to its reputation in this reissue.

laidlaw

Originally published in 1977, William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, the first book in a trilogy, set a standard for noir mystery. In this reissue, McIlvanney’s gruff, broad strokes read as freshly as ever.

Glaswegian detective inspector Laidlaw is the quintessential hardened, hard-drinking cop. Sarcasm, problems at home and a prickly exterior belie a sensitive man who believes that his society bears some responsibility for every crime he investigates.

Laidlaw is approached by a thug he’s dealt with before: Bud Lawson’s daughter hasn’t come home from the club, and Lawson wants Laidlaw’s help. Where other cops hold Bud’s criminal past against him, Laidlaw is willing to assist. For this case, he is partnered with the ambitious and impressionable young detective constable Harkness, who is meant to act as liaison between Laidlaw’s unconventional tactics and the police establishment. Harkness is an excellent foil for Laidlaw’s methods and worldview, and the growth and development of their relationship throughout is a satisfying side plot.

A murdered teenage girl does not, on the surface, look to be related to the network of thugs and gangsters that run Glasgow’s criminal industry. But her killer–exposed to the reader early on–quickly becomes a pawn. Bud Lawson’s gangster associates want him so they can exercise their revenge; other gangsters with other connections want him spirited safely out of town; and, of course, Laidlaw has his own goals–though, as he asks, “Who thinks the law has anything to do with justice?”

The phonetically spelled Scottish brogue adds color to dialogue, and McIlvanney’s remarkable lyricism is surprisingly refined in this dark, coarse world (“She waited patiently for his head to come back from a walk around his guilt”). His strengths are both character and setting: Laidlaw is a complex individual, harder on himself than on anyone else, with an iconoclastic nature and difficulty with authority figures. The Glasgow McIlvanney evokes, rife with poverty and an unglamorous criminal underbelly, is absolutely compelling, and is a precursor to strong mystery settings like Michael Connelly’s Los Angeles or James Lee Burke’s Louisiana.

Laidlaw is not so much action-packed–although there is plenty of head-busting–as it is considered, psychological and concerned with the existential. McIlvanney has earned his reputation as the father of the “tartan noir” crime-writing genre that includes Ian Rankin, Denise Mina and Val McDermid. Readers will be glad to know that the next two books in this trilogy are set for re-release in late 2014.


This review originally ran in the May 12, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 5 pubs.
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