The New York Review of Books publishes, in observance of Thanksgiving, an article on gastronomic youth. Just because we grew up on bad food doesn’t mean we aren’t nostalgic of it. “Bad” not in the sense of junk food but probably not what you’ll find at Whole Foods. Some of the best food is that which invokes memories of childhood. For me it was the fish balls on a skewer sold by a street vendor outside the school. At the final bell kids ran berserk out the gate and hogged the cart of fish balls in piping hot broth. The other favorite is a waffle layered with spoonful of sugar, melted peanut butter and condensed milk. Another gourmet delicacy is this flaky pastry with egg custard filling. I was just talking with my friends about how the first meal I take when I visit my home in Hong Kong is a mix of street food and comfort food. What defines your gastronomic youth?
In Paris, at Shakespeare & Company Bookstore, under the residence cat’s paws, I discovered Georges Simenon’s mystery novels. A stash of them. The staff labels him as the most “re-readable author”, who started with high literary ambitions and ended by writing commercially successful books. Originally from Liège, Belgium, Simenon came to Paris in search of fortune and spent his 20s writing pulp fiction at a break-neck speed. in ten years and 200 short novels later, he followed the advice of Colette, to whom he acknowledged debt, and cut out literature.
It was Maigret who made him famous, and it is the Maigret novels that I found in Paris. The Maigret books are crime novels, but not as much whodunits. Maigret is a policeman, but the novels are far from being police procedurals. The books recount in considerable detail the investigation and the roundup of suspects. It is Simenon’s empathy, his insight into how people behave when they approach the breaking point, that lifts his work high above the common run of crime fiction. Simenon also has a unique sense of place, of ambiance, and his books often evokes the less known sides of Paris, through a look at the backs of houses, as seen from canals and railways.
The Strangers in the House
The Madman of Bergerac
Monsieur Monde Vanishes
The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien
Maigret Sets a Trap
I read mostly mysteries during the holiday seasons. The writing is more simple and requires less brainpower to read between the lines. But sometimes looking for the right mysteries could be a challenge. Mystery fiction has had many labels attached to it over the course of the genre’s history and there have been many attempts to classify it. The easiest is to stick with authors I like and branch out from there.
Thrillers, whodunits, mysteries, crime fiction, detective fiction, noir: all of these, and more, have been used, separately or interchangeably, to describe basically the same thing. They are all essentially referring to the same overall genre of literary fiction, the mystery or crime story. I divide them up in three categories and keep that mind when I’m browsing:
1. Puzzled Mysteries. One book that comes to mind is the recently read, lesser-known Bodies in a Bookshop by R.T. Campbell. A murder victim is discovered in a room or enclosure with no apparent exit, leaving the detective to ascertain the killer’s means of escape. What if the killer never escaped? The locked-room format uses such devices as misdirection (red herrings) and the illusion to deceive the reader into thinking that escape from the sealed room is an actual impossibility.
2. Cozy Mysteries. Some bookstores now have a separate section of these mysteries. This genre is generally acknowledged as the classic style of mystery writing. Prominent in England during the 1920s and ’30s, this style focused on “members of a closed group, often in a country house or village, who became suspects in a generally bloodless and neat murder solved by a great-detective kind of investigator.” (Crime Classics) The stories almost always involved solving some form of puzzle, and invariably, observation, a keen understanding of human nature, and a heavy reliance on gossip were indispensable tools used in the solving of the crime. Representative authors are Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers.
3. Hard Boiled/Noir. Born in the 1920s with the rise of pulp magazines, these stories captured the reality of life in America at this time in history. Most stories featured a tough guy main character, an isolated protagonist who managed to obey his own code of ethics and achieve a limited and local justice in a less than perfect world. Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett are the quintessential hard boiled mystery novelists.
4. Police Procedural. The main characteristic of these types of stories are their realistic portrayal of police methods in the solving of crime. Police novels, or procedurals, usually center on a single police force or precinct, with each individual within becoming a part of the story. Often showcasing several cases at the same time, procedurals concentrate on the detailed investigation of a crime from the point of view of the police. Most of the supermarket bestsellers fall into this category.
“Abused children carry abuse forward through time. This is the unthinkable gift that keeps on giving.” (753)
This Body of Death is long, but the intriguing plots that at a first glace bear no obvious relation to each other justify the length. The novel begins with a barrage of plot shards: a grisly toddler abduction tale alternates with a baffling narrative about a missing young woman whose bloody corpse turns up in a London graveyard. The victim, throat cut, is identified as Jemima Hastings, a flighty, man-obsessed young woman who, months before, had mysteriously disappeared from the sylvan cottage she shared with her boyfriend, a rather morose, reclusive roof thatcher named Gordon Jossie, in northern England.
There had to be a way to explain both her life and her death. And he had to find that truth, for he knew that its discovery would be the only way he could forgive himself for failing Jemimia…(437)
George spends the first quarter of the book (about 250 pages) developing all the characters associated to the victim. It’s tedious but not compromising on the pace of the book, rather it’s establishing a suspense. In a mystery with such complicated plots, readers will be rewarded for being patient with the background information, which is important to understanding the players and their subsequent actions. The thread about the toddler abduction-murder is the black thread in the white tapestry that one recognizes as significant, but its relevance not revealed until the much later deciding stage. George fleshes out all her characters beautifully, moving seamlessly in and out of their heads, affording glimpses into their secrets. Jemima also comes alive through the recollections of those who know her, as well as the investigation itself, which turns up a variety of leads involving an ancient coin and a stone.
By the way things are developing, everyone associated to Jemima seems to be in cahoots, but their partnership among them is not known. Meredith, best friend of Jemima who is on her own investigation, knows the platoon of her old lovers, fellow lodgers and Jossie’s new live-in lady love—all play a part in the murder. They keep scrambling out of the woodwork and coincidences abound.
The investigation team is also laden with drama. Isabelle Ardery, a police superintendent with a drinking problem and complicated family life orders DI Barbara Havers to have a makeover and wear A-skirt and pantyhose for a more professional appearance. Her misjudgment in the pursuit of a renown musician is saved by DI Thomas Lynley, who returns to the fold from bereavement.
This Body of Death is a slow-churned mystery poised on murder, police malfeasance, false identity, and a long-ago act of violence. George has a fine eye for details, the writing is strong enough that it flows effortlessly once reader gets into the story. It’s a circuitous story full of convolutions, but the mystery plot weaves perfectly together from the many threads.
953 pp. Harper Fiction. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]
Goodreads: What book are you thankful that you read this year?
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Having grown up in a foreign country, I never read this children classic. It’s a celebration of friendship and its meaning. It’s an evergreen tale that deserves recognition as a novel in which readers will find wisdom, humor, and meaning.
Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi. It’s as much a documentary of the Manson murders as a testimony of Vincent Bugliosi’s brilliance and perspicacity in his handling of the case. It’s a spellbinding murder case and most importantly, a testimony to how our justice system comes through.
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I would not have picked it up, let alone read, this book if Tina didn’t pick it as a read-along. Rand’s philosophy can be outlandish but she is not without reason. The huge tome delves on the importance of reason and individual thinking. When one is rid of its own will and thinking, the virtues that make life possible and the values that give it meaning become agents of its destruction.
The Atlantic has an article on ISIS that will help us understand that ISIS is not a mere group of psychopaths. The way to deal with ISIS is not to “bomb the hell out of them” as Donald Trump claimed, at least not that easy. The reality is that the Islamic State is very Islamic, and that they take their religion–apocalypse in specific, more seriously than what Christians regard the Revelations. Yes, it has drawn adventure seekers and psychopaths, but the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam. Muslims can reject Islamic State, but pretending that it is not a religious, millenarian group, with a theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to count it.
The New York Reviews of Books has an article reminding us that today in 2007 Amazon introduced its electronic reading device, the Kindle. Francine Prose is not concerned about paper vs electronic reader but on privacy of readers. E-book retailers are now able to tell which books we have finished or not finished, how fast we have read read them, and precisely where we snapped them shut. I’m not surprised or bothered by the fact. In the age of electronic devices, and with the aid of social media, every move of ours can be tracked and traced. Publicity means tractability. Our smart phones are really GPS by which the government can tract our whereabouts and ply into the information and sites we are looking at.
I digress. As per books the data show mystery/thriller and romance are the two most popular genres readers most likely to finish the books. But does that mean readers would feel guilty and shameful about not finishing a book? Will it ever happen that someone can be convicted of a crime because a passage that he is found to have read, many times, on his e-book? I think Francine Prose is way too opinionated and paranoid about how readers’ habit are being too transparent. Does it really matter? Does everything have implications?