Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Highly Effective Detective by Richard Yancey

Initially, I thought author Richard Yancey had an almost literary way with a murder mystery. His main character, Theodore Ruzak, is a sensitive fellow given to long, rambling inner monologues. For the first three or four chapters, I was smitten--particularly since the story takes place in my own stomping grounds of Knoxville, Tennessee.

But as the book progressed and nothing much happened, I became more and more irritated with Mr. Yancey and his nattering Teddy Ruzak. Ruzak pretty much does nothing but eat doughnuts and think. This could be endearing in the right story, but a murder mystery is not the right story in which to focus on the self-absorbed thoughts of a loser.

When Ruzak's mother dies and leaves him a little money, he quits his job as a security guard and sets up shop as a private detective. He does everything on impulse, including hiring his favorite waitress as a secretary. He doesn't even have an investigator's license. Again, this sort of half-assed behavior started out amusing and soon became annoying beyond belief. Ruzak doesn't do anything. He puts things off, especially the difficult things. His first--and essentially only--case is to find out who ran over six baby geese. He doesn't even go out to look at the scene of the crime for weeks, at which point I wanted to smack him around a little.

It's not until about halfway through the book that it's even clear there's been a murder, and that it maybe-maybe not relates to the dead goslings. The plot, frankly, is a hot mess, made worse because Yancey doesn't play fair with the clues. Half the fun of reading a mystery is following along with the sleuth, trying to figure out what's going on. Yancey doesn't let us in on any of the clues--we don't even get details on who's being murdered. And despite Ruzak's obsession with moral ethics, he sure is fast to dump his ethics entirely when presented with a threat and a bribe--even when he could have solved both problems with one phone call. Instead, he calls for pizza.

At that point, I was ready to just throw the book down in disgust. Even the amusement factor of seeing familiar placenames in print got old after a while. I only finished the book because I was so close to the end. This may not be the worst book I've read this year--Yancey's prose approaches literary cleverness, even if his characters are unlikeable and his plot lame--but it's sure right down at the bottom of the pile.

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Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Haunted Bookshop series by Alice Kimberly

Currently there are five Haunted Bookshop mysteries in this series. The sixth is due out next year. In order, the books are: The Ghost and Mrs. McClure, The Ghost and the Dead Deb, The Ghost and the Dead Man's Library, The Ghost and the Femme Fatale, and The Ghost and the Haunted Mansion.

I bought the first book last Saturday and read it, then went back to the book store Sunday and bought the other four. I finished the fifth last night and now I'm gnawing at my own fingers in a frenzy of withdrawal.

Which is odd, because the books are not all that good. The plots are okay (except for The Ghost and the Haunted Mansion, where I guessed the murderer ridiculously early) and the writing is uneven and often stilted, especially dialogue. The main character, Mrs. Penelope Thornton-McClure (who goes by Pen although she inevitably introduces herself with her full name, including the Mrs.), is both wimpy and weirdly prudish for a grown woman with a kid.

But the books are far more than the sum of their parts. The saving grace is the ghost character, Jack Shepard, a private eye who was gunned down in a bookshop in the 1940s while on a case. Pen is the only one who can hear him. Pen's recently widowed and has returned to her hometown of Quindicott, Rhode Island to help her aunt run the bookshop Jack is haunting. At the beginning of the first book, a writer who knew Jack while he was alive, and who has based a successful series of hardboiled mysteries on his cases, suddenly drops dead in Pen's bookshop. Jack helps Pen solve the murder.

The relationship between Jack and Pen is what keeps me reading these books. Jack is tough, pragmatic, wisecracking, and hardnosed, but he's also sympathetic when it comes to Pen. He and Pen share a mismatched friendship and a sweet and wistful romance.

I'd like to say the books get better as they go along. That's actually not the case. They're all about the same, although the fifth book really frustrated me since not only was the mystery not all that great (it was on par with an average Scooby Doo episode), there was less interaction between Jack and Pen in that book than in all the others. The books feature a current-day mystery that is at least tangentially related to a case Jack worked while he was alive, which is interesting--although since Jack's cases are all solved, we don't get the fun of Pen and Jack solving two murders concurrently (which is one of my favorite types of mystery). I'd also like to point out that if the stories were real life, Pen would so be in jail about a million times over for messing with crime scenes and evidence.

I'm also disappointed that the mystery of Jack's own murder remains untouched. Pen does ask Jack about it in the first book, but he shuts her down and tells her it's far too dangerous for her to investigate. That's fine, although I wish we'd get clues sprinkled here and there. It's obvious that eventually Pen is going to have to solve Jack's murder, probably in the last book in the series (although maybe not; mystery series rarely finish naturally, they just stop when the publisher decides not to renew the writer's contract).

So to sum up: not the best mysteries ever written, but a fun premise and a fantastic relationship between the two main characters.

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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti

The Good Thief is a great, shocking adventure that's written like a fairy tale, and is as unsettling as any stories from the brothers Grimm. Hannah Tinti's style is smooth and light, deceptively so: the reader is drawn into her unsettling world and can't stop reading.

Ren is an orphan in Colonial New England. He has, mysteriously, only one hand, as the other has been taken off and the wound stitched carefully. He knows his name by the cloth that was with him when he was pushed through the monks' gate at the monastery, a bit of cloth that had embroidered on it three letters: R E N.

In his twelfth year, a stranger, Benjamin Nab, comes to the monastery looking for his brother, and when he finds Ren, with his one hand, the stranger tells the monks a fantastic story about Indian kidnappings and Ren's doomed mother chopping off his hand to keep him from being taken. The monks send the boy away with Nab, who soon reveals that he is a liar and a grave robber.

The characters and city settings of this fascinating tale are very much, as others have said, in the style of Dickens, as is the moral dilemma of Ren, the good boy who must become a thief to survive.

Ren must also endure many horrors, and meet many wonderful and loathesome characters, from a chimney climbing dwarf to the deaf and loving Mrs. Sand, to the dentists who buy dead people's teeth--what amazing adventures he will have before the satisfying ending.

The Good Thief is a fine and vivid three-hundred page fairy tale that's considered young adult reading--I suppose young people, now used to vampire love and lust, will find grave-robbing light reading. I think it's a great, bloody, robust book for grownups, too.

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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Miss Zukas and the Island Murders by Jo Dereske

I started reading this book over lunch on Monday. One of my coworkers noticed it and said, "Oh, I love that series. I can't wait for the next one." Of course, she's a librarian and the main character is too.

This is another used bookstore find; I thought it was the first in the series, but it's the second. It was published in 1993 and hasn't aged gracefully. So many plot elements could have been resolved in seconds by a quick online search, which makes the story seem contrived. It's not fair, but there you go.

My coworker mentioned to me that the main character, Helma Zukas, is "kind of a strange person." Strange must be librarian code for 'cold, robotic, remote, and unlikable.' At first I found Helma's quirks amusing, but as the story progressed, she became annoying. Her dislike of gossip and supposition just meant she was withholding information from the reader; her Aspie-like clumsiness in asking questions of other characters turned the dialogue unrealistic.

A lot of the book is unrealistic, for that matter. Helma receives an anonymous note reminding her of her promise to organize her 20-year high school reunion. Since it just so happens that she invested the money her class raised twenty years before, she now has lots and lots of cash to spend on the event. Her artist friend Ruth talks her into holding the reunion in their area, in Washington State, rather than at their actual high school in Michigan. Then Helma starts receiving other anonymous notes telling her to cancel the reunion. Ultimately the reunionists end up stranded on a fogbound island in a nearly-abandoned resort hotel, which is about as contrived as it can possibly get.

The mystery concerns a high school athlete's mysterious death twenty years before. It might have been interesting except that Helma's efforts to investigate are so clumsy and haphazard. She also makes terrible choices--so terrible that it's obvious she makes the choices so there will be a mystery. I find it hard to believe that someone so careful about details and propriety as Helma would fail to tell her policeman friend about the anonymous notes, especially once they became threatening; I was flabbergasted at her choice to call a (40-year-old) murder victim's parents before she called the police, until I realized the parents had a CLUE to impart. The writing is as awkward as Helma's social skills.

So no, I wasn't impressed with this mystery. I guessed the murderer ahead of time and I found the plot ultimately unsatisfying. Then again, it's Book Two in a series and Book Twos are almost always terrible. I won't give up on the series until I've tried Book One, but I'm not really very hopeful about it.

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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Murder with Peacocks by Donna Andrews

I picked up Murder with Peacocks at a used book store. It was published in 1999 but it's held up well (although I kept wondering why main character Meg had to wait around the house for phone calls instead of just carrying her cell).

Meg Langslow is maid of honor for three upcoming weddings--her best friend's, her brother's, and her mother's remarriage--and as if that weren't enough, she's also promised to coordinate the weddings. That means spending the summer in her old hometown while fielding the brides' increasingly maddening ideas (peacocks!) and fending off well-meaning relatives' attempts to play matchmaker. All goes reasonably well until an unpleasant guest shows up and starts making nasty accusations. When the guest turns up dead, Meg has something else to add to her long to-do list: find the murderer.

The book is fun and often extremely funny. The mystery tends to take backseat to the craziness surrounding the weddings, but there are plenty of clues, danger, and murders too. The writing is solid and the plot devious, and the murderer came as a surprise to me. I liked that the eccentricities of Meg's large extended family were treated with a sort of matter-of-fact wit; quirky characters aren't easy to do well, but Andrews does a good job with most of them. Meg herself might have come across as drab in comparison, but her saving grace is that she's a blacksmith by trade. It doesn't come up in this book except in passing, but I'm hoping there'll be more about her occupation in sequels.

This is probably the perfect beach read, incidentally. Not only is it funny, fluffy, mildly romantic, and action-packed, it's actually quite long for a mystery. And it's reminded me just how much I enjoy a good mystery.

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