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Book Stack 2010 – Part 1 of 3

Stack of books read in 2010It’s a two-year tradition now: the stack o’ books. The stack pictured at right includes most of the books I read in 2010.

Part 1 of 3: Reading the Detectives (Fiction)

Since reading Nancy Drew as a young kid, I’ve always enjoyed mysteries. My taste tends toward British tekkies. I’ve read all of the original Sherlock Holmes novels and stories (and a healthly selection of Holmesian pastiches), all of the Lord Peter Wimsey, and all of Father Brown. Just this year I finished with Rumpole of the Bailey. Oddly, I haven’t read a single Miss Marple or Poirot mystery.

More recently, I’ve discovered a couple of Swedish series, and started in on everything by the expatriate American Patricia Highsmith (most noted for her “Ripley” novels).

I’ve read only a few American mystery writers, and no more than a novel or two by any of them.

The “mystery” genre itself is, well, something of a mystery. In any bookstore, for instance, Jim Thompson’s The Grifters will be found in the mystery section. It’s not a mystery. It is a crime novel, I guess, but it’s really just a novel. Ditto with the works of Patricia Highsmith. Murder novels, but not mysteries. John Mortimer’s “Rumpole” stories are “barrister stories.” Most involve a crime, and in many but not all, Rumpole does solve some sort of mystery. The Edwardson and Sjowall/Wahloo novels are sub-classified as “police procedurals,” and always conclude with the solution of a crime. But they aren’t traditional “whodunnits,” in any real sense.

So while the books below will most often be found in the mystery section of a bookstore, they are a diverse group. They are often considered to be “light reading,” but this is a generalization. They can sometimes be as challenging and well-written as anything by snootier, more “serious” authors.

  • Michael Dibdin – The Last Sherlock Holmes Story
    Of the Holmes pastiches I’ve read, this one certainly takes the greatest chances. It’s well-written and researched, as plausible as it needs to be, and is gripping. But in the end it is unsatisfying. Unsurprisingly, cocaine and an unorthodox portrait of Moriarty are involved. Not the favorite of true Holmes fans, I’m pretty sure.
    (By the way, I am aware that there are pulpy, low, anything-goes, “Sher-slockian” ripoffs, but I try to stay away from them. By and large, the non-canonical Holmes I read—including this one—meet a pretty high standard of “Holmesian authenticity.” If that makes any sense.)
  • Ake Edwardson – The Shadow Woman
    I continue to read Swedish detective fiction, but not yet the author everyone else is reading (Stieg Larsson). There are at least five of Edwardson’s “Erik Winter” novels in English translations; this is the third I’ve read (Sun and Shadow and Frozen Tracks being the others). These are categorized as “police procedurals,” and share similarities with the Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall’s “Martin Beck” novels I read (see The Abominable Man on this page). I can’t really say why it is I am so fond of these stories set in Gothenburg when I wouldn’t have much interest in a similar series set in, say, New York or Los Angeles. But I am.
    This story is much, much more the story of the search for the victim and her daughter than it is the search for her killer. Her very identity is unknown for a least half of the book, and there is a puzzling twist involving her daughter. The actual discovery of her killer turns out to be less-than-fulfilling after the lead up to it, but I enjoyed the book.
    There is one niggling point that bothered me. The detective Winter is a big fan of Jazz, and in particular of John Coltrane. He listens to some of the Clash’s London Calling in this book, explaining that they are new to him and that the album was given to him shortly before the timeframe of the book (the story is set in 1994, so the album is about 14 years-old). Presumably the title track has some resonance with the violent, highly charged, hot summer atmosphere that is intertwined with the plot. Late in the book, when he is asked by a colleague about the song “Jimmy Jazz,” Winter says that he hasn’t really listened past the opening (title) track. Yet earlier in the book, a line from the Clash song “Somebody Got Murdered” runs through his head at a key point in the investigation. This song, though, does not even appear on London Calling. This track is found on its successor, Sandinista!. If Winter is listening to the Clash for the first time, how does he know “Somebody Got Murdered?”
  • Patricia Highsmith – The Boy Who Followed Ripley
    This is the oddball in the first four Ripley novels. Tom Ripley is cast in the role of protector, and doesn’t do anything evil at all. True, the wealthy young American boy he protects is a murderer, but hey, nobody’s perfect.
    There’s a lot more to it than that, of course, but I’ll spare you. It is probably my least favorite Ripley so far. One more to go to complete “the Ripliad,” and I fully expect the amoral Tom to reappear in the final volume.
  • Patricia Highsmith – Strangers on a Train
    Strangers on a Train book jacketIt’s a an often heard cliche that “the book is better than the film,” and in my experience it’s often true. In this case, though, the Alfred Hitchcock film is very good; I like it a lot. But I have to repeat the cliche: the book is even better.
    There are pretty substantial differences between the book and the film. It would give away too much if I went into detail about the important differences (and you, gentle reader, should pick up the book). If you are curious, and want to spoil the ending of the book for yourself, see Wikipedia.
    Once again, the oddly misogynist lesbian author writes a novel about a man and the murder of his wife. Like this one, in two of the other Highsmith novels I’ve read (The Blunderer and A Suspension of Mercy) a husband daydreams about killing his wife, doesn’t do it, but finds himself in hot water when she is killed anyway. Odd.
  • Michael Kurland (ed.) – Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Years
    Another collection of stories that purport to document Holmes’ adventures during the “the Great Hiatus” between the time he was reported killed at Reichenbach Falls and his surprise reappearance three years later. The eleven stories in this collection are told by eleven different writers, and they are not always consistent with each other. In a few, Holmes is traveling under his “Sigerson” alias. In one of the best, titled simply “Mr. Sigerson,” Holmes takes a job as first violinist in the Greater Bornitz Municipal Orchestra.
    While a couple of these stories are first-rate, the collection as a whole is quite uneven. I particularly did not care for the two science-fictionish tales (one involves an “alternate universe” in which Holmes really did die at Reichenbach Falls, and where Moriarty and evil reign).
  • John Mortimer – Rumpole and the Reign of Terror
    The ageless Rumpole takes on the Anti-Terror Act in this novel when he defends a Pakistani doctor accused of supporting Al Qaida. He nearly loses his favorite family of clients, the Timsons, as a result. Everyone else, including She Who Must Be Obeyed, is against Rumpole taking the case, of course.
    The subplot involves She Who—Hilda—writing her memoirs and flirting with the Mad Bull, Judge Bullingham.
    Mortimer’s penultimate Rumpole book (just the second novel), and a good one.
  • John Mortimer – Rumpole Misbehaves
    All good things must pass, and with this final novel, Horace Rumpole tries his last few cases. Last that we will hear of, anyway. He doesn’t die or retire (though Ballard is still trying to push him out), but John Mortimer died in 2009 and as far as I have read there are no more stories in the pipeline.
    It’s a little short of novel-sized, really, and pretty thin to me in places. There’s still plenty of humor, but rather more of the mellow side of Judge Bullingham than seems right. Fittingly, Rumpole defends a young Timson in one case. The more sensational case involves a murder, and our favorite junior solicitor may have to finally achieve the rank of Queen’s Council in order to take it. Does he?
  • Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo – The Abominable Man
    A policeman is savagely murdered in his hospital bed, and Beck learns of the dead man’s reputation as a hard, punishing, brutal cop. Paradoxically, his family (a wife and son) are completely unaware of his unseemly reputation. Few who knew him professionally, though, are sorry or surprised to see him meet such an end. Who would carry out such a killing, and what else might he have in mind?
  • Jim Thompson – The Grifters
    A brutal novel about a small-time con man—a grifter—who in the end is no match for his mother, who plies the same trade on a different level. Haunting.
  • P.G. Wodehouse – My Man Jeeves
    Perhaps Bertie and Jeeves delve into crimes and mysteries later on, but on the evidence of this first collection of Wodehouse’s “Jeeves stories” there is no reason at all that they should be found filed under “Mysteries” at the bookstore. Maybe they aren’t? My belief that they are may be based only on the fact that Lord Peter Wimsey’s man Bunter was inspired at least to some extent by Jeeves.
    This book marked my first foray into eBook territory, as I blogged earlier in Ask Jeeves.

See also Book Stack 2010 – Part 2 of 3 and Book Stack 2010 – Part 3 of 3.

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