Delicious murder mystery

‘A Bitter Feast’ serves up delectable meals along with its charming detecting duo

You will be forgiven if your mouth waters uncontrollably while reading Deborah Crombie’s latest entry in the Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James mystery series, A Bitter Feast (HarperCollins, 2019). The action is set in the picturesque Cotswolds and centers around a pub in the village of Lower Slaughter, which boasts a world-class chef serving up the ultimate pub food. Why such a talent is toiling in obscurity after having shone at a Michelin-starred London eatery is just one of the mysteries that is eventually unraveled here. Others are more momentous, involving multiple suspicious deaths and the private lives of various village denizens.

Crombie often weaves together storylines from the past and present in her mysteries, and A Bitter Feast is no exception. At regular intervals we jump back to chef Viv Holland’s time in London, learning how her culinary career began and why she left it behind. Characters from that past play key roles in the present, drawing the two storylines together in the end. Meanwhile, Detective Superintendent Kincaid and Detective Inspector James find their holiday weekend turned into a busman’s holiday almost at the off, when Duncan is involved in a serious automobile crash that leaves two people dead. His own injuries keep him from fully asserting himself in the subsequent investigations, but fortunately the local constabulary proves to be both up to the task and not afraid to accept help from Scotland Yard when it’s offered. It’s a refreshing change from the usual obstructionism that local law enforcement tends to exhibit in run-of-the-mill murder mysteries.

Devoted fans of the series will be delighted that even though Gemma and Duncan have ventured out of London and away from their Metropolitan Police home base, many of the series’ most prominent secondary characters are along for the ride. Of course the couple’s children are along, and it’s a relief to find that Duncan’s son Kit is starting to outgrow his overly sensitive teenage persona and becoming a more well-rounded character in his own right. But we also get more-than-cameo appearances from Gemma’s detective sergeant, Melody Talbot, and Duncan’s own DS, Doug Cullen, as the quartet are spending the weekend at the country home of Melody’s posh parents.

And then there’s the food. Oh my, the food! Crombie does a fine job of illustrating the chaos of a working commercial kitchen, and an even better job of describing the output of that process in delectable ways. I wasn’t very far into reading before I was tempted to book the next flight to the Cotswolds. Only the knowledge (revealed in Crombie’s author’s note) that the pub and chef are fictional kept me curled up in my reading chair until the end.

For me, the appeal of Crombie’s work is tilted more heavily toward the compelling characters and world that she has created, though there’s nothing wrong with her plotting. I love both Duncan and Gemma, and I enjoy spending time with them, their blended family, and their friends. It was smart of Crombie to give a fresh feel to the series by moving the action outside of London, while retaining the core character set that drives much of the reader’s interest. And as always, even as a mystery is solved, the characters’ lives continue to grow and develop. This time around, I’m eager to read the next entry to find out how Melody’s personal dilemma resolves itself.

If you’re already a fan of Duncan and Gemma et al., you don’t need me to tell you this is worth your time. If you’ve not had the pleasure of meeting them yet, I would suggest starting with the first in the series, A Share in Death, and working your way forward. Some series don’t need to be read in order, but this one is infinitely more rewarding if you experience the characters’ growth and change along the way.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Read it before you see it

Long before it was a movie, ‘The Goldfinch’ cast a spell on its readers

With the recent release of a major motion picture based on Donna Tartt’s runaway bestseller, I thought it would be worthwhile to revisit my initial review of the book. This review was originally written in 2014.

Wow, what a sprawling, magnificent, compelling story Donna Tartt tells in The Goldfinch (2013, Little, Brown) that is about so much more than the painting referred to in the title. It’s about art, beauty, fear, abandonment, carelessness, remorse, redemption, sorrow and joy. It’s about the value of friendship, the pain of loss, the holes that life leaves in all of us and the ways we choose to fill them up.

Theo Decker is 13 years old when a tragedy leaves him without parents. He is taken in by the family of a school friend, and just when it seems his life has begun to stabilize he is uprooted and set on a path that leads him from New York City to Las Vegas to Amsterdam and back again. He bounces around between various sets of parents, surrogate and otherwise, some of whom are loving but all of whom seem incapable of giving him the sort of focused attention that could help anchor him in the world around him. Instead, he is forced to use an inanimate object — that painting pictured on the cover — to be his touchstone. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t enough to keep him safe in a world filled with so many easy ways to flirt with danger.

The story that Theo tells is long, involved, intricate, densely layered with events that seem loaded with meaning beyond what they or he can bear. The further into the story I ventured, the stronger was my feeling of constant low-level anxiety for what would become of Theo. It seemed impossible from the very beginning that he would live happily ever after — that anyone in his world would — and every page I turned ratcheted up the tension.

I didn’t always like Theo. Often I disapproved of the choices he made and the things he did, but that didn’t stop me from desperately wanting him to find the sanctuary that he seemed to spend his whole life looking for. I didn’t always like the people he surrounded himself with. Or perhaps more accurately, I didn’t always like the things he did with and to the people who surrounded him, and I didn’t always like how even the most sympathetic of them still failed utterly at providing a safe harbor for a lost soul. And yet I still hoped, right up until the end, that each of them would be redeemed, that everything would work out, that everyone would — finally! — do the right thing for themselves and for Theo.

The Goldfinch isn’t a perfect book. It’s long, almost unbearably long, made bearable for me only by the fact of its being an ebook and thus not an intimidating physical chunk to remind me of just how much story was left to tell. There are sections that go on and on and don’t seem to do much to advance either the plot or the characters’ development. There are a few too many supporting characters who are sketchily drawn and serve mainly as a placeholder for a group stereotype. But always, there was some redeeming action or insight waiting on the other side, rewarding me for pushing on.

I finished reading The Goldfinch yesterday, and even as I’ve moved on to my next book I find myself thinking about Theo at random times during the day, as if he were someone I know. I recall particular passages or scenes and think about how often Tartt chooses to work against the expected tropes. The chilly upper-class woman whose family takes young Theo in turns out to genuinely like him and treat him as part of the family even long after he’s grown up. None of the most important characters are purely saints or sinners; just as in real life people turn out to be more complicated than that. Just as this book is more complicated than a story about a painting.

Jackson Brodie returns

Nine years on, the moody detective picks up right where he left off in ‘Big Sky’

When last we saw Jackson Brodie, in 2011’s Started Early, Took My Dog, the introspective private investigator at the center of Kate Atkinson’s literary mystery series was wandering around Yorkshire, trying to track down an adopted woman’s biological family while coping with a rescued dog and his own personal dramas involving at least two ex-wives and a vanished fortune. Along the way, he managed to more-or-less solve a decades-old crime and rescue another stray — this time a toddler. 

He had a lot going on, is what I’m saying. 

When we meet him again in Big Sky (Little, Brown, 2019), nine years on (and after a string of World War II books from author Atkinson set), Brodie is still wandering around Yorkshire, sometimes in the company of his now-teenage son (by second ex-wife, Julia) and an aging Labrador retriever (also courtesy of Julia, who may not want to be married to Jackson anymore but trusts him implicitly with the things she loves most in the world). Brodie’s current job is tailing a local businessman to find out if he’s cheating on his wife. It’s dull work, but leave it to Brodie to inadvertantly stumble into a much larger, more sinister case simply by virtue of being in the wrong place at the right time. It isn’t long before he finds himself in the midst of marital secrets, cold cases, and human trafficking on a brisk, business-like scale.

I would certainly classify the Jackson Brodie series in the mystery genre, but Atkinson’s writing does not lend itself to the terse, straightforward “just the facts, ma’am” narrative that most people think of when they think of detective stories. She operates on a near stream-of-conscious level that has lots of space for digressions, asides, and parenthetical additions. Indeed, the first chapter of Big Sky is a scene between Jackson and his son, but the parenthetical conversations, both remembered and imagined, with Julia make her as present a character as if she wasn’t miles away filming a television series at the time. This is not a story to knock off while waiting for your car’s oil change in a noisy mechanic’s waiting room, or in 15-minute bursts of reading time at the end of the day. Atkinson’s demands my full attention when I read her work, but she rewards me with stories and characters that spring to life in my mind.

It had been so long since I read Started Early, Took My Dog that I worried I wouldn’t remember enough to be able to fall back into Jackson Brodie’s world. Those fears were unfounded — I mean, I really didn’t remember much in the way of details but it turned out not to matter in the end. Other than Julia, the only recurring character who makes a significant re-appearance here is Reggie Chase, whom we first met in When Will There Be Good News (2008). Then, she was a Scottish teenager with a tough home life; now, she is a police officer investigating the cold case that brings her back into Jackson’s orbit.

I was disappointed back in 2011 when Atkinson announced that she was done writing about Jackson Brodie, and I rejoiced when she said he was returning this year. The books she wrote in the meantime were critically acclaimed and I thoroughly enjoyed them, which made the return of Jackson Brodie seem like more of a celebration than a grasping at previous success. I don’t know if we’ll meet up with Jackson further down the road, but I’m happy to trust to Atkinson’s instincts about what she needs to write.

Ellery Queen takes a trip

The sleuth leaves the city behind to tackle a small-town family’s misery in ‘calamity town’

My mom had the Wrightsville Murders omnibus pictured at left on our bookshelves when I was growing up. It was a big heavy hardcover book containing three full-length Ellery Queen novels — Calamity Town, Crazy Like a Fox, and Ten Days’ Wonder — that I devoured starting in about sixth grade (40-some years ago). And I knew I had re-read it more than once, but I don’t think I fully grasped how often I must have read and re-read it until I started my most recent read of the first book in the omnibus, Calamity Town.

On every page — nearly in every paragraph — there was a phrase or sentence or scrap of dialogue that triggered the strongest sense of dejà vu. It wasn’t so much that I remember the outlines of the story or whodunit (I actually didn’t) but that I remembered actual words and phrases! I’ve never had that happen before and it was a pleasingly disconcerting sensation.

Fortunately the vertigo wore off after Part I (which makes me wonder if I read and re-read just the first section over and over? I wish I could go back in time to find out, but then again that would mean living through junior high and high school again and no thank you) and I could just enjoy the book for what it is, which is a splendidly plotted mystery full of appealing characters put into realistic situations and left to find their way out.

A brief plot overview: It’s 1940, and famous writer Ellery Queen has traveled to Wrightsville, a small town in upstate New York, in search of “color” for his next mystery novel. While there, he is befriended by the Wright family, descendants of the town’s founder. That leaves him in the perfect place to observe as one misadventure after another befalls the family, culminating in the requisite murder.

Perhaps because they take Ellery out of his usual New York City locale, the Wrightsville novels have always had an extra appeal for me. Whereas the “regular” Queen mysteries set in NYC seem to rely on intricately formed plots with clues and red herrings scattered about, in Wrightsville the characters come to life fully formed and breathing. Incredibly for a novel written in the 1940s, there is virtually no offensive racial stereotyping or cheap laughs gained at the expense of the “hicks” that populate Wrightsville. Ellery does not condescend to his hosts, not even the Town Soak who is prone to declaiming Shakespeare from his drunken perch at the base of the founder’s statue in the town square. It feels so much like a real town that I am half convinced I’ve been there before.

I guess the best thing I can say about this novel is that now I remember why I read and re-read it over and over all those years ago. It’s a magnificent piece of scene-setting and characterization, with a mystery that more than lives up to its surrounding structure. I have a feeling I won’t wait another 30 years before reading this one again …

Illusions of safety and danger

Dennis Lehane dives deep in ‘Since We Fell’

Rachel Childs is a television journalist in Boston whose career is on a steep upward trajectory until she is sent to Haiti on assignment after the devastating 2010 earthquake. The horror she sees and experiences there leave her with a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder that becomes apparent when she breaks down during a live broadcast.

Back in Boston, her news career in shambles, Rachel struggles with panic attacks that leave her afraid to even leave her apartment. Her relationship with a co-worker doesn’t survive, but when she meets an old acquaintance by chance, his patient understanding of her problems leads to romance and eventually marriage. With Brian’s help, Rachel starts to re-emerge from her self-imposed exile. Her tentative journey back to normalcy is jolted, however, when on one of her first solo trips downtown she discovers Brian in a place he shouldn’t be. The discovery prompts her to use her investigative reporting skills to get to the bottom of the mystery without tipping him off to her suspicions leads her deeper and deeper into a dangerous situation where no one is who they seem.

For my money, Dennis Lehane is one of the most underrated mystery/thriller writers in the business. Yes, several of his previous novels, Mystic River and Shutter Island among them, were turned into feature films, but the books themselves never generate much discussion among my friends who enjoy Harlan Coben, Linwood Barclay, and others. With Since We Fell (Ecco, 2017), Lehane has delivered another intricately plotted examination of people who are not what they seem being driven to extremes by circumstances they can’t control. I appreciated that Rachel, despite her emotional fragility through much of the first part of the novel, is far from a hapless victim waiting to be rescued. She manages to engineer her own rescue on her own terms, even as she accepts the consequences of what she has to do in the process.

Lehane builds the narrative tension slowly but surely (perhaps a little too slowly at first) to a white-knuckle finish that seems both unexpected and inevitable. Nothing about this book made me any less eager to read the next offering from a first-rate writer.

The Irish Book of Job

John Boyne puts his hero through some heavy trials in ‘The Heart’s Invisible Furies’

So many friends on LibraryThing have recommended John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies (Hogarth, 2017) to me, and one went so far as to send me a copy of the trade paperback (thanks, Amber!) It took me entirely too long to get around to it, but once I did I understood entirely the enthusiasm.

The focus of the story is on Cyril Avery (who is not, his adoptive parents are quick to tell anyone who asks, a real Avery). Cyril’s teenage single mother was literally thrown out of church and her home village in 1945 when the priest learned she was pregnant; she ends up in Dublin, where she sets up an unconventional household with two gay men. Once she gives Cyril up, she loses touch with Cyril for many years, although their lives have a way of crossing at intervals, with neither of them any the wiser about who the other is. This aspect of the narrative was amusing but strained credulity quite a bit for me.

The narrative follows Cyril and his adventures — or more accurately his misadventures — as he grows up and tries to find his place in a world that doesn’t value him. The story leaps forward in seven-year intervals into the 21st century. At times it seemed like a retelling of the Book of Job with an Irish brogue. Just about any calamity that can befall a young, introverted gay man and his acquaintances lands on poor Cyril and friends. But the conceit allows us to view momentous events in the history of Ireland and of gay rights worldwide through one sensitive young man’s eyes, so perhaps Boyne can be forgiven for ladling on the pathos so thickly.

In many ways, The Heart’s Invisible Furies reminded me very much of the best of John Irving’s work, in particular The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany. Both novelists have a knack for creating quirky characters and putting crisp, eloquent words in their mouths. I’ll certainly seek out other novels by Boyne to see if the comparison holds up or is merely coincidental to this work.

Viral video opens old wounds in ‘The Hidden Things’

With The Hidden Things (Gallery Books, 2019) Jamie Mason has crafted a solid suspense thriller that is firmly rooted in contemporary culture. It all begins when 14-year-old Carly fends off a would-be attacker who follows her home from school. Their encounter in the front hallway of her family’s home is captured by the surveillance cameras that her stepfather, John, had installed. Predictably in the 2010s, the video goes viral on social media after first being posted on the local police website. Soon Carly is fielding questions and attention from friends and strangers alike, who all know her as the plucky teen who defeated the bad guy.

Carly’s a bit overwhelmed by all the attention, but not so much that she doesn’t notice how oddly John is acting in the wake of the incident. And she isn’t immune to the household tension that erupts because neither Carly nor her mom realized John had installed surveillance cameras inside as well as outside the house.

Many cities away, the viral video comes to the attention of a group of people who are particularly interested, not in Carly and her heroics, but in what’s shown in the background: The corner of an old painting that was stolen from a museum and later thought to be lost forever when an underground sale went awry. How did it end up in Carly’s house? And to what lengths will people go to get it back?

The story is told from a variety of viewpoints, giving the reader insight into what all the main players are thinking and feeling. There’s Carly, of course, who is the heroine in more ways than one. But there’s also her stepfather, who finds himself trapped in a situation that could cause him to lose the comfortable home life he has finally found. And the other people who were involved in the caper-gone-wrong along with John are also given their turn in the spotlight: hapless loser Roy, ruthless bad guy Owen, and the enigmatic Marcelline, left for dead but very much alive. As they all converge on Carly’s home, no one’s sparing a thought for who might get caught in the crossfire. And it’s up to Carly to try to save herself, her family, and her “normal” teenage life.

Mason does a great job of juggling the rotating viewpoints without losing the reader’s attention. She managed to make me sympathize with each of them in turn, even when I knew the unspeakable things some of them had done. And she doesn’t try to wrap things up with a neat bow and unbelievable feats of strength from a young teenager. Carly is indeed her own savior (with a little help) but she is changed irrevocably by what she learns and what she is forced to do, and Mason doesn’t shy away from exploring the consequences of those actions. It kept me turning pages to the very end, and feeling satisfied when I closed the cover.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Up in the air

Only Dick Francis could combine horses and air travel in such a fascinating way

cover image of book Rat Race.

The most amazing thing about Rat Race, a 1970 mystery written by Dick Francis, is that it isn’t the only horse-racing mystery that Francis set in the world of aviation. Flying Finish, published four years earlier, delved into the world of long-distance horse transport. In both my 1980s-era paperback and a brand-new ebook edition of Rat Race by Canelo, there is an introduction from Francis explaining how the story came to be. His wife Mary figures prominently, as she apparently got so absorbed in researching the details of flying taxis that she took flying lessons and became a pilot herself. The Francises even had their own flying taxi service for a while before they sold out to a competitor.

Francis often publicly acknowledged the extensive research assistance that his wife did, to the extent that some people suspect she actually wrote the books. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know the care the Francises took to detail the specifics of various professions is one of the things that make reading Francis’ mysteries such a pleasure for me. Rat Race is no exception.

As I said, this book was originally published in 1970 and it shows in the cultural descriptions, in particular a hippie character named Chanter, who sprinkles around a generous helping of “man”s and disdain for authority as he’s casually groping the female love interest and railing against the establishment. Thankfully, he’s limited to two brief appearances, so don’t let him turn you off from this groovy story, man.

Matt Shore is a pilot. Once among the best in his profession, flying for B.O.A.C. (one of the forerunners of the current British Airways), Shore’s career has been on a bit of a downward spiral and he’s been reduced to working for a ramshackle flying taxi service that is barely keeping its wings above water. He’s depressed and keeps himself shut off from the world, until he is blasted — literally — out of his apathy when a bomb explodes on the plane he had been piloting just minutes earlier. It is seemingly only through the merest chance that Matt and his passengers — the top steeplechase jockey in Britain, a respected former Army Major, and an iron-glove woman trainer — escape serious injury. But accidents keep happening, and Matt realizes he needs to figure out where the danger is coming from before his career and his life both go up in smoke.

I remember when I first read this one ages ago, I was fascinated by the glimpse into the world of private aircraft. I think all of the experience that Mary Francis acquired in her research lends a nice air of authenticity. Of course, aviation technology has changed so much over the past 40-odd years that some of the dilemmas Matt faces probably wouldn’t happen today, but it hardly mattered to my enjoyment of the story.

The way Francis managed to meticulously and believably depict such a variety of different professions while maintaining a connection to the world of horses at the core of each book he wrote is remarkable. Plots set exclusively within the horse-racing scene so familiar to former jockey Francis would likely have grown stale in short order, but Francis deftly shows the reader how that industry closely interacts with so many other aspects of ordinary life. It’s always a pleasure to re-visit one of these old favorites.

Big things come in small packages

a family tragedy of the american west

Montana 1948 (Milkweek, 2007) is a story of sibling rivalry, the malleability of the criminal justice system when it’s applied to people of color, the internal struggles that we all experience when it feels like the only way to do the right thing is by doing the wrong thing. The spare prose and the slender size of the book make the complex depth of the characters all the more astonishing.

Cover image of Montana 1948

David Hayden is 12 years old in 1948, when his family’s housekeeper, a Native American woman named Marie Little Feather, becomes ill and is later found dead in her room at the Hayden house. The truth about what happened to her, and the repercussions of both the original acts and the subsequent reactions, tear apart the Hayden family in painful and irrevocable ways.

Watson has a way with evocative description that made me feel as if I had once visited the small Montana town where the Haydens lived, in the High Plains eastern part of the state. And his rendering of Adult David’s thoughts about the events of that long-ago summer made me feel as if I was right there in his head, looking back on my own memories:

… the sound of breaking glass, the odor of rotting vegetables. … I offer these images in the order in which they occurred, yet the events that produced these sights and sounds are so rapid and tumbled together that any chronological sequence seems wrong. Imagine instead a movie screen divided into boxes and panels, each with its own scene, so that one moment can occur simultaneously with another, so that no action has to fly off in time, so nothing happens before or after, only during. That’s the way these images coexist in my memory, like the Sioux picture calendars in which the whole year’s event are painted on the same buffalo hide, or like a tapestry with every scene woven into the same cloth, every moment on the same flat plane, the summer of 1948 …

Larry Watson

Watson effectively uses the first-person perspective of an adult David looking back on this time in his life. While grown-up David occasionally adds some big-picture perspective and hindsight, he’s also careful to emphasize his younger self’s bafflement at some of the secrets and discussion that he overhears. He calls himself naïve for a boy of 12, and I think he would be in today’s culture, but I suspect many 1948-era 12-year-olds would seem rather immature to today’s tweens.

I suggested this book to my real-life book club as part of our criminal justice theme. (I first read it in 2015 but didn’t review it then and didn’t remember enough to feel comfortable leading a discussion without re-reading.) The other books we’ve read for this theme include The Green Mile by Stephen King, Minority Report by Philip K. Dick, A Study in Emerald by Neil Gaiman, and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. That last book is without doubt a book every American should read, but Watson’s minor masterpiece just might be my favorite. 

Will no one rid me of this troublesome brother-in-law?

Christopher Buckley serves up slapstick political intrigue in ‘The Judge Hunter’

Samuel Pepys has a problem. The incessant diarist of the 17th century has successfully negotiated himself into a position of minor power in the Restoration government of King Charles II after having inconveniently supported Oliver Cromwell and the Roundheads in the overthrow of Charles I. Life would be reasonably tolerable if not for his wife’s brother, Balthasar, a ne’er-do-well content to sponge off Pepys as a more appealing alternative to getting and keeping a job. If only Sam could find some way of getting Balty out of his life and his purse!

The answer to Pepys’ prayers, at least in the pages of Christopher Buckley’s latest satirical novel (Simon & Schuster, 2018), seems to come when he stumbles upon a plan to send Balty to the American Colonies on a vague quest to search for two judges who were responsible for condemning Charles I to execution. Once landed in the Massachusetts colony, Balty is taken under the wing of one Hiram Huncks, who is ostensibly going to help Balty find the judges but may have his own agenda.

Buckley is a master at historical satire, weaving comedic hijinks throughout an otherwise historically faithful account. Between yuks in The Judge Hunter, he delivers plenty of solid history about the founders of the American colonies, whether English or Dutch. The severe Puritans who founded the Massachusetts colony are reliably skewered, as are the even stricter sect that split for Connecticut when they thought Massachusetts was getting a little too loosey-goosey (narrator: they were not), and the Quakers who refused to renounce their faith despite severe persecution. I learned more about the second Anglo-Dutch War (truthfully, I’m not sure I even remembered there had been a first one) than I ever learned in school. “Excerpts” from Pepys’ famous diary are scattered throughout the narrative, and it was nice to have confirmation in the afterword that all but one or two were entirely made up. Too bad, because Buckley almost had me convinced to tackle the many-volumed classic work.

At the outset, I was concerned that Buckley was serving up too heavy a dose of slapstick, which would rapidly wear thin. Happily, as the plot progresses the characters acquire some more substantial traits than mere deliverers or receivers of punch lines, giving the overall work a pleasant depth.

The Judge Hunter is a worthy follow-up to Buckley’s first historical satire, The Relic Master, which set its skewed sights on the 16th century trade in saints’ remains. Buckley has stated his intention to continue the series with books set in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Based on past performance, those will be worth keeping an eye out for.