August 15, 2016

Before Holmes, There Was Mrs. Glasser

The Female Detective: A British Library Crime Classic, by Andrew Forrester, (Poisoned Pen Press), 256 pages, release date 2 August, 2016

The Female Detective is a delightful piece of literary history. Originally published in May, 1864, it is believed to be the first book-length collection of detective stories featuring a female detective. The protagonist and narrator, who never tell us her name, but sometimes uses the aliases Mrs. Glasser or G, appeared at a time when women had not yet entered the ranks of British police, so in a sense these are not just detective stories, but alternate reality pieces as well. The fact that G lives in a world where other women work as police and as detectives adds to this alternate reality. She is exceptional in her skills, but not as exceptional in terms of her professional identity.

The quality of the narration—and of the mysteries themselves—varies, but always avoids tedium. Two of the tales included are novella-length; the remainder are more typical short stories. In addition to recounting specific cases, G  makes general observations about her profession: the detective’s habits of thought, the kinds of access to suspects and witnesses available to female detectives that is not available to their male peers. The prose can get turgid, but that is a marker of the time period more than a particular weakness of Andrew Forrester’s writing. In fact, most readers will find their vocabularies broadened by this reading, learning terms like defalcation, absquatulation, blague, doucer, and ukase. (For those who are interested, these are defined as embezzlement, an abrupt departure, nonsense, a bribe, and an arbitrary command.)

G has the tone of later hard-boiled detectives. She notes bribing an informant: “my acts being of course illustrated with several silver portraits of her majesty the Queen.” One local character is pitied in “a small-beer kind of way.” In a statement both cynical and feminine she tells us “the public see the right side only of the police embroidery, and have no idea what a complication of mistakes and broken threads there are on the wrong.”

Not surprisingly, class and nationality are frequently used to assess the reliability or worth of individuals. G tells us she will not reproduce the text of a suicide note “for it was badly spelt, and written in a highflown sentimental style, which might appear ridiculous to the more unthinking of my readers.” One story notes the “mutual candor” to be found among “men who have gone to school and been thrashed together.” A local police offices shows “rustic signs of impatience.”

Of particularly interesting note is one case that hinges, in part, on a dog who doesn’t bark—this some thirty years before Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will solve the case of “Silver Blaze” using a similar clue.

The Female Detective is well worth a read for its own sake and for the perspectives it gives us on British life and gender roles in the mid-1800s. Poisoned Pen’s reissue of this title is a real gift to readers of detective fiction.

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August 12, 2016

Uncomfortable, Valuable Reading

A Meal in Winter: A Novel of World War II, by Hubert Mingarelli, translated by Sam Taylor, (The New Press), 144 pages, release date 5 July, 2015

Hubert Mingarelli’s A Meal in Winter offers a brief, deceptively simple tale: in occupied Poland, during World War II, a trio of German soldiers, desperate to escape their bloody, daily work as executioners, gain permission to leave their base to search for hidden Jews. They take a prisoner, spend an evening in an abandoned cabin with this prisoner and a Polish national, putting together a stew of cornmeal, sausage, and the local rot-gut alcohol.

Mingarelli’s novel was originally published in French in 2014, and this English translation is both a welcome and a distressing piece of work. No one in this novel is truly likeable, but the motivations of characters are presented with enough clarity that readers can’t simply vilify them with a smug “I would never.” The central characters are all living lives they despise, choosing between multiple evils on a daily basis.

Did I enjoy this novel? No. Will I be reading it again? Yes. This is the sort of reading that isn’t pleasurable, but is necessary, forcing confrontation with historical fact and with what may potentially lie inside each of us. You can read A Meal in Winter in an evening, but it will remain with you for much, much longer.

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August 10, 2016

Dr. Siri Paiboun Rides Again

I Shot the Buddha: A Doctor Siri Paiboun Mystery Set in Laos, by Colin Cotterill, (Soho Crime), 352 pages, released 2 August, 2016

Back in May, 2015, I reviewed the previous Dr. Siri Paiboun novel, which was the tenth in the series. I loved every moment of it: the deft interweaving of humor and the history of modern Laos and the unusual range of characters peopling it. Well, good news! Dr. Siri is back in I Shot the Buddha. He’s retired from his position as coroner, but the mysteries keep coming.

This time, he’s taking on a mission for Noo, a homeless Buddhist monk who had been living with Dr. Siri and his wife, Madame Daeng and who has suddenly disappeared. Noo leaves behind a note asking Dr. Siri to help smuggle another monk across the Mekhong into Thailand. Dr. Siri finds himself in a hostile Thai village where he must solve a series of horrible crimes if he wants to have any hope of returning to Laos. At the center of the mystery is a mechanic who may or may not be the latest incarnation of the Buddha and the legacy of colonial occupation.

Read this book both for the fun it offers and for the basic education in Buddhism and Lao/Thai history that it offers as a side dish.


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August 08, 2016

The Long Shadow of Racism Depicted in a YA Paranormal Novel

What the Dead Want, by Nora Olson, (Katherine Tegen Books, HarperCollins), 304 pages, released 26 July, 2016, listed by the publisher as directed to readers thirteen years old and above

Nora Olson’s What the Dead Want explores racism, war, and hatred using both paranormal conventions and a variety of prose genres. The previous sentence may sound ponderous, but the novel isn’t. Gretchen, the protagonist, is the daughter of a father who is gone for months at a time on medical missions and a mother who ran a gallery specializing in spiritualist photography. Her mother disappeared years ago, and Gretchen is primarily being raised by a neighbor. Gretchen is, like her mother, a photographer, though not of the spiritualist variety.

At the start of summer vacation, Gretchen receives a phone call from a great-aunt she never knew of who wants to bequeath a mansion to Gretchen, but first needs Gretchen to come and help “tidy up” the place. When she enters the cluttered mansion, Gretchen realizes that tidying up will be a major undertaking—and that’s before she encounters any of the malevolent spirits who make the mansion their home.

Gretchen discovers that her great-aunt was a well-known war photographer, who spent her life capturing important, but disturbing images of some of the 20th Century’s great conflicts. In addition, the mansion grounds themselves were the site of an atrocity: a mass killing of of members of a Black church by racist vigilantes. For years accidents and deaths have occurred on the anniversary of that atrocity. And, of course, that anniversary is coming soon.

As Gretchen works to overcome the spirits haunting the mansion, she—and through her, the reader—is given a chance to reflect on the lasting impact of violence. She is moved less by the atrocities themselves than by the lost histories of those killed in the atrocities. She wants, in some way, to do right by these victims, which means she has to puzzle out “what the dead want.” Because Gretchen is both clever and brave, she finds a way of doing what she can to ease the mansion’s spirits.

Olson peppers the novel with invented “historical” documents, including newspaper clippings, letters, and photographs. This provides perspectives—both destructive and benign—beyond Gretchen’s own.

If you know a middle schooler who loves paranormal fiction and who also worries about questions of justice, What the Dead Want will provide her with satisfying reading. Yes, the world’s great history of violence can’t be easily resolved in a novel of 300 pages, but 300 pages is enough to raise important questions and to offer some possibilities for addressing these wrongs.


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August 04, 2016

Mystery and Religious Conflict in 16th Century Spain

The Devils of Cardona, by Matthew Carr, (Riverhead Books), 416 Pages, released 14 June, 2016

Matthew Carr’s The Devils of Cardona is set in 16th Century Spain, a time and land fraught with conflict between the Catholic government and its morisco citizens: Muslims forcibly converted to Catholicism. When a hated priest serving in a morisco community is found murdered in his own church, magistrate Bernardo de Mendoza is ordered to investigate the crime. What follows is tale of shifting suspicions and additional murders. Are these crimes being committed by moriscos? Are they being committed by powerful Catholic landowners hoping for an excuse to drive the moriscos away? Are they about faith or money or power or some combination of these?

While I’m not a historian, I want to say that I found the period detail in this novel very convincing, particularly the portrayal of religious conflict at that time. Mendoza—a humanist, which is unusual for his time—doesn’t just uncover clues to the murders. He also learns a good deal about life in the morisco community: the prejudices they face and the lengths they must go to in order to preserve their religion. Because Mendoza is not firmly committed to either side in this religious conflict, he provides an open-minded perspective that will appeal to present-day readers.

If you enjoy historical mysteries that effectively explore the eras in which they’re set, you’ll want to read The Devils of Cardona. Even if you’re not interested in historical settings, The Devils of Cardona will offer you a complex and satisfying read.

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August 03, 2016

Native American Children Stolen and Stolen Again

Stealing Indians, by John Smelcer, (Leapfrog Press), 200 pages, release date 2 August, 2016, recommended by the publisher for grades six an up

John Smelcer has published over fifty books, both fiction and nonfiction—but finding a publisher for Stealing Indians was a challenge. Why? Because the topic precludes a happy ending, something generally expected in young adult fiction.

His topic is the forced removal of Native American children from their homes and their placement in residential schools. Indians are stolen in two different ways in this novel, first by their displacement, then again as the federally run schools attempt to eradicate every trace of their Indian heritage. These schools operated from the late 1800s well into the 20th Century. Many were still functioning into the 1950s; a few were still in place in the 1970s.

At the center of this novel are four friends, each from a different region and tribe. Their school, as was typical of these schools, forbids the speaking of native languages, forbids the celebration of native ceremonies, forbids all traditional practices. The punishments for breaking these rules are brutal. Students are at risk of violence and sexual assault from those running the schools and from older children. Yet the friends manage to support one another.

Stealing Indians makes for heart-breaking, but necessary, reading. Smecler’s characters are vivid and complex creations. Thanks to Smecler’s articulate, finely-tuned prose, they retain their dignity throughout the novel, as their lives narrow and grow increasingly bleak.

Smecler, son of an Alaskan Native father, has served as executive director of his tribe’s Heritage Foundation. He has worked compiling and editing Native language dictionaries and pronunciation guides. He has also conducted extensive interviews with survivors of the Indian residential school system. He knows his topic—and knows tidy, happy endings wouldn’t be appropriate. As publicity materials for Stealing Indians say, “This is a work of fiction. Every word is true.”

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August 01, 2016

A Foundling’s Journey of Discovery

Amy Snow: A Novel, by Tracy Rees, (Simon & Schuster), 576 pages, released 7 June, 2016

If you’ve hit the summer reading doldrums, you’re in luck. Amy Snow is a delightful read: one of those long, suspenseful novels peopled with characters you’d like to meet in real life.

The Amy Snow of the title is a foundling unwillingly admitted to the wealthy Vennaway household in the mid-1800s, after being found by eight-year-old Aurelia Vennaway. Despised by the Vennaway parents, Amy has spent her life as a servant of sorts, but Aurelia adores her. When Aurelia is diagnosed with a deadly heart condition, she insists on having Amy as a full-time companion. After Aurelia’s death, Amy is evicted from the Vennaway home having received only a small bequest of £10. This is where the novel begins.

As Amy leaves the Vennaway home, she’s stopped by a local school teacher, who presents her with a small wooden box left with him before Aurelia’s death. A note inside the box explains that Aurelia has arranged a “treasure hunt” for Amy, a more complex version of a game they played as children. Thus begins Amy’s journey, which has her traveling across England. Over her travels, Amy comes to know both Aurelia and herself in ways she’s never imagined. She makes friends at each step in her journey, and many of these friends have additional clues from Aurelia to pass on to Amy.

The novel is a bit predictable: Amy, of course, solves Aurelia’s puzzle; she attends balls; she’s also courted by a pair of men, both quite charming—at least on the surface. Nonetheless, the writing is quite good and the novel has enough uncertainty to keep readers turning pages. When you need a long read with lovable characters, Amy Snow may be just the thing.


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July 29, 2016

Tales of the Weird

Dark Pursuits: A Jonathan Harker Thriller Omnibus, by Tony Evans, (Endeavour Press), 229 pages, currently available as an ebook only

While the reviews of Dark Pursuits are mixed, I found this title a fun read. Yes, it’s not great literature, but it is a series of small, supernatural romps with characters—Jonathan and Mina Harker and Professor VanHelsing—that Dracula fans will be glad to meet again.

The underlying concept is clever. Having rid the world of Dracula, Jonathan is now working for a law firm handling “cases of a certain sort”; in other words, legal problems with a supernatural twist. These cases are engaging, though not particularly complex, and the three included here can be read separately, making for several nights’ worth of bedtime reading.

If you’ve never read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, read that first. Then, if you enjoyed it, have a go at Dark Pursuits to make the fun last a little longer.

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July 17, 2016

Family and Revolution in Egypt

Chronicle of a Last Summer: A Novel of Egypt, by Yasmine El Rashidi, (Tim Duggan Books, Random House), 192 pages, release date 28 June, 2016

Yasmine El Rashidi’s Chronicle of a Last Summer is actually a chronicle of several summers. We see the young woman at the center of the book across three decades: as a child, as a college student, and as an adult. The common threads in her life are boredom, the confusing nature of Egyptian politics and protest, and the secrets within her own family. The novel ends during the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. Readers sense the hope of this historical moment, but also realize how quickly that hope will fade for many Egyptians.

El Rashidi’s prose is exquisite both in what it communicates and what it withholds. That she can tell such a rich tale in a novel under two hundred pages is a testament to her ability to choose the right word, the right sentence—and to avoid unnecessary embellishment. Chronicle of a Last Summer is, in my estimation, one of the best books released this year, rewarding for its style, its characters, and its historical insight.

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July 15, 2016

Melville and Hawthorne and the Making of Moby Dick

The Whale: A Love Story: A Novel, by Mark Beauregard, (Viking), 288 pages, release date 14 June, 2016

Mark Beauregard’s The Whale tells an imagined version of the relationship between Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne. That the two were neighbors and on-again, off-again friends is fact. That the two shared a homoerotic attraction is, if not quite fact, likely. Beauregard imagines the two men in a sort of 1850s “Brokeback Mountain,” with Melville embracing the pair’s shared feelings and Hawthorne denying that these feelings exist. In doing this, Beauregard draws on the actual correspondence between the men, weaving the texts of their letters into his narrative.

This novel is simultaneously heart-breaking and humorous. Melville, who dedicated Moby Dick to Hawthorne, longs for a closeness that Hawthorne is unable to offer. Melville gives himself over completely to his attraction to Hawthorne, pursuing the older writer as he writes the story of Ahab’s pursuit of the whale. Melville can be endearing, maddening, even obsessive. Hawthorne’s character is less well-developed, though Beauregard does a capable job of painting a picture of Hawthorne that makes Melville’s attraction understandable.

Reading Beauregard’s version of these two tales—one of unfulfilled love, the other of the creation of a ground-breaking novel—is a pleasure to read, both perceptive and believable. It also provides a lively portrait of the American literary scene and the midpoint of the 19th Century.

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