Funkyfacecat’s #CBR5 Review #08: Swan Song by Edmund Crispin

I am horribly, ridiculously behind, but now my thesis is winging its way to examiners, my last teaching before Christmas is almost done, I can read fiction guilt-free, and in theory I have time to post some more reviews. So here goes.

I like old-school detective stories, and I like Oxford, and I have liked detective stories set in Oxford, and I enjoy Lewis occasionally, but I did not enjoy Edmund Crispin’s Swan Song (1947) very much. Starring Gervais Fen, in a nebulous sort of way, the plot centres around an odious opera singer and the drama behind the scenes–when Edwin Shorthouse is found dead in a locked room after a conversation in which several people expressed murderous intent, could it possibly be suicide as the police suspect?

Gervais Fen is an academic, but it’s unclear, at least from this novel, in what field. He is considered witty, and has, as is right and proper, an ambivalent relationship with the more conventional forms of law and order, i.e. Inspector Mudge. He lacks much personality beyond the occasional quip and leap of logic. In this particular investigation, he is aided by Adam, also an opera singer, but of a pleasant, non-primadonna type, and his new wife Elizabeth, who writes about crime and is well read up on poisons. The action takes place in Oxford just after the war, which is indicated not only by street names and references to random colleges, but the use of the Bird and Baby, which Tolkien, Lewis and the Inklings called The Eagle and Child pub, and the occasional splash of local colour: ‘There goes C.S. Lewis,’ said Fen suddenly. ‘It must be Tuesday.’ And this may be overly persnickety, but if someone’s familiar enough with Oxford and its literary scene to call the Eagle and Child the Bird and Baby, they should know that C.S. Lewis usually went by “Jack.” 

Anyway. It’s a pleasant enough read, despite irritations, but it suffers in comparison with the Other Oxford detective novel – Fen seems a pale Wimsey, Elizabeth a non-descript Harriet Vane, the solution to the crime, although ingenious, contains both heavily signposted elements (“he was not to know that someone else knew where the revolver was” and that kind of thing) and elements that the reader, i.e. me, could see coming from miles off but do not become clear to the celebrated detective until the final denouement. Overall, disappointing, but passes the time. I might try another of his books at some point.

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reginadelmar’s #CBR5 review #43 Vuture Peak by John Burdett

I’ve read Burdett’s entire series of books featuring Sonchai Jitpleecheep, detective with the Royal Thai Police in Bangkok. The books include a whole host of characters, Sonchai’s mother who is a former prostitute and now madame, his wife Chanya, also a former prostitute and his corrupt boss Colonel Vikorn.  Sonchai is a practicing Buddhist who is often faced with hard choices between following his Karmic path and survival. I haven’t liked all of the books, the first Bangkok 8 may have been the best, but I always enjoy Sonchai.

Vulture Peak might best be described as a hot mess. The book begins with 3 corpses missing darn near everything: faces, fingertips and key organs.  Vikorn, now running for public office, puts Sonchai in charge of the case and  international human-organ trafficking suggested by this crime. Sonchai gets a black Amex card and travels to Hong Kong, Dubai and Monte Carlo, in pursuit of the Yip sisters, eccentric wealthy twins who appear to be at the heart of the crime ring.They are also compulsive gamblers, usually competing against one another.  While Sonchai is chasing down organ harvesters, his wife Chanya is writing her thesis about prostitution, which includes numerous arguments that many women enter prostitution willingly and are not exploited. Seriously, Burdett? Throughout the novel a rapist is also terrorizing women in Bangkok. The plot gets pretty convoluted, with the rapist and organ-harvesting story lines eventually converging and making little sense whatsoever. Everything gets wrapped up in the end in a most unsatisfactory manner.  Maybe it’s time for Sonchai to pursue another line of work.

Owlcat’s CBR V review #22 of The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling)

I know there are some who dislike JK Rowling’s decision to discontinue writing Harry Potter books and/or not write other children’s books and, instead, turn her attention to writing the books that these aforementioned books are giving her the opportunity, i.e., in terms of money, to write.  I suspect, after reading this newest novel of hers, these adult books were the ones she was “meant” to write, but then again, I am not a fan of the Harry Potter books, having read only the first one.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is a detective mystery set in London.  There are actually two primary characters, a military veteran, Cormoran Strike, who wears a prosthetic leg, who has begun his own detective agency, and a temporary secretary, who has moved to London with her fiance and is in search of a well-paying job but forced to be a temp in the meantime.  The story is frequently told from each of these two characters’ perspectives, although the quirky detective is the prominent character, and they play off one another’s personality well.

Strike is hired by the adoptive brother of Lula Landry, a famous, young model, to disprove her suicide that he is convinced was a murder.  The questions for the detective are whether Lula Landry jumped from her apartment or was pushed and if the latter, who pushed her.  There is a long list of possible perpetrators, although through the story, some become victims themselves and thus are eliminated from his (and our) consideration.  He occasionally takes his secretary with him or has her doing errands once he realizes she is by far the smartest and able temporary secretary he has had and begins to pay her “under the table” to retain her services rather than have her return to the temp agency.  Their relationship never strays from employer/employee until one night when she helps him through a particularly inebriated episode, but even then, it develops into a respectful friendship and doesn’t dissolve into any sexual encounter that a less skillful author may have thought was necessary.

In fact, it’s Rowling’s skill developing her characters that is most impressive.  I like that they are normal people we might meet or see on the street without ever guessing what is beyond their exterior appearance.  She peels away their external protection and we meet complex people among all the characters, not just the primary ones, with all their insecurities and confidence and histories. This goes along with her great descriptions of locations and we see the worlds they are living in and investigating clearly and how they might compare.  There is some humor in the characters, particularly Cormoran, and particularly in his relationship with his ex-girlfriend and with his secretary, but the humor wasn’t contrived and felt very natural, the kind of humor people exhibit around each other.

Although I read this novel knowing who the author was (I’d heard it referred to after someone had disclosed she’d written it using a pseudonym), I quickly forgot it was written by Rowling and instead, was immersed in the stories and characters as presented.  Had I read it thinking the author was one Robert Galbraith, I’d have felt the same way I felt knowing otherwise. So for me, this book clearly had a life of its own and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys detective stories.

 

Owlcat’s #CBRV Review #9: Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin is a prolific detective mystery author from Scotland, to whom I was introduced several years ago by a friend in Finland.  I have read perhaps 10 of his novels and this is his most recent one, which over the course of time has followed a DI (detective), Rebus, in the Edinburgh police department.  Having aged along with the numerous novels, he has gradually worked his way through the ranks, and in this particular novel, he is semi-retired, having joined the cold case unit as a way of maintaining a semblance of usefulness.  He is not the sort of man who retires, moves to a cottage on the coast, and fishes or bird watches.  He needs to be in “the thick of things.”

In Standing in Another Man’s Grave, Rankin has Rebus behaving as his usual self, a man who is complicated, irascible, very much a maverick within the department throughout his life, “old school,” intuitive, and in frequent trouble with his superiors, sometimes to the point where The Complaints (which is their version of internal department investigators) have occasionally investigated his techniques and behaviors, never, however, finding enough evidence to do anything about him other than to annoy him and put him on notice.  He doesn’t care, as he is more determined to resolve cases and find perpetrators than worry about his own situation within the department, particularly in this newest novel, since he knows that once the case he resurrects is done, he’ll again be considered “redundant,” the British Isles term for “retired.” His drinking, which he has tempered somewhat since other appearances in other novels, and his cigarette habit are also a source of personality flaws that, along with his stubbornness and other above traits that are both good and bad, but all of which make him very believable and very human.  Despite my own adverse reactions to strong personalities, drinking and cigarette smoking, I always come away from these novels liking Rebus.

In this novel, the plot is as complicated as the man trying to solve it and at times, just a little difficult to follow, but that could also have been the result of my frequently trying to read it when I was a bit too tired.  All the characters are well developed and connect either directly or indirectly with Rebus and frequently with each other, sometimes resulting in their diverting the reader from the truth that at times is hinted at but easy to not see.  We leave that up to Rebus!

The story begins with his wanting to discover what happened to one particular girl who went missing many years ago and whose mother decides it is Rebus who can discover the truth.  In the course of investigating her case, he begins to see a pattern that had heretofore not been noticed and connects the dots, realizing they may well be indicating a serial killers’ presence in area of Inverness.  His methods to determine who this is involves his using his maverick and old school methods, while others at first dismiss his accusations until more technological evidence (i.e., computers) begin to suggest he may well be correct.  Even then, his unsubtle and tenacious willingness to step on toes, particularly those in authority, and his disregard for protocol when they and it get in the way of investigating, leads him to be thrown off the case, although Rebus being Rebus isn’t about to let that stop him.  In the midst of all this, however, is his care and concern for his former partner, DI Siobhan Clarke, and her therefore willing attempts to help him as best she can, even when he cautions her that he could be a bad influence on her, leads the two of them to a climactic ending that is satisfying and believable.

I highly recommend this book, along with all the other Ian Rankin novels, because none that I’ve read are boring and all are interesting, the characters, Rebus, John Fox in The Complaints series, Scotland itself, and the minor and major characters.  The books also can be read out of sequence, which is how I began reading them, though now I try to read them in sequence more for continuity than anything. This book in particular is exceptionally good. Maybe I relate more to the Rebus character now that I’m also retired and better understand all of the questions and insecurities he has internally, and the need to reconnect the present with the past. Even though he is an older character, however, I think anyone who enjoys a good detective story is going to enjoy this book.