Tag Archives: mystery

Mean girls

So I watched Sky TV’s adaptation of Mark Billingham’s book Sleepyhead but I didn’t like it enough to keep watching, I just wanted to know who the killer was and if I was right in my suspicions (I was). But oh my gosh the book was even worse than the movie, I don’t want to go into too much detail because that’s just mean… I couldn’t even get through the first few pages, it was just so ridiculous, and disappointing! I guess the market saturation of serial killer thrillers means that some crap gets through.

I’m getting back on the reviewing Serious Literature horse once I get around to finishing Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin which is seriously awesome so far (I’m very envious of her ability to switch styles and voices seemingly at will–the fact that she had books like both Room and Slammerkin in her makes me so jealous!) It’s just hard to find the time as the semester goes on. This is my second-to-last semester of law school, so I’ve been trying to get my head around all the deadlines I have for bar exam application and juggle my coursework (I’m writing a short paper for Evidence, and one for my Crime & Community class that only has to be 15 pages, but I already have 46 pages in 10 pt Times New Roman of notes…) and my social life.

It’s so sad, but in weeks like this, I really do miss just being able to relax and curl up in a chair with a cup of tea and a book that isn’t law related without feeling guilty about it.

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C. J. Sansom — Dissolution

Three weaknesses in one: English history, mystery novels, and the law. It seemed as though C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels were tailor-made for me, featuring the adventures of the titular character, a hunchbacked lawyer in the employ of Thomas Cromwell.

The first book of the series, Dissolution, is set during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the Catholic monasteries from 1536-1540. Shardlake is sent to the monastery at Scarnsea after the commissioner sent to attempt to convince the Abbott to surrender the grounds is murdered most brutally. Once arrived, Shardlake and his assistant, Mark, are plunged into a treacherous atmosphere where the murders continue and anyone in the closed community could be the killer. And Shardlake might be next.

Sansom is another lawyer turned author and of course I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for those guys. I thought generally it was quite a good debut; the historical research was done well and thoroughly, and he certainly had an eye for the small details that make period pieces believable. The mystery, too, was a twisty one, and I’m always pleased when I can’t figure out the killer but after the “reveal,” remember hints that if I’d been paying attention would’ve allowed me to get it. It’s not out of left field but it’s still a satisfying surprise.

It’s obviously a first novel and while the prose was mostly decent there was an obsession with detailing the weather on almost every chapter (sometimes multiple times per chapter) that was a bit of an amusing writing “tic”; similarly, some of the dialogue came across as stilted and somewhat unbelievable. That’s always a fine line to walk with medieval characters, you don’t want to make them sound so ridiculous as to be unbelievable, but using words and phrasing too modern and casual can throw you out of the story. It mostly worked, though there were a few instances where I rolled my eyes just a teeny bit (there were also a few redundancies and awkward descriptions).

What I enjoyed the most about Dissolution (besides the history!) was Shardlake himself. He’s a really interesting hero: flawed both physically and emotionally; introspective but blind to his own faults, and a clever and engaging narrator with a dry sense of humor that the reader can follow alongside. And just as the mystery concluded, Shardlake’s emotional epiphany at the end of the book was equally satisfying.

So while it wasn’t a perfect read I quite enjoyed it, and I’m happy I took out Dark Fire, the next book in the series, at the same time–so I won’t have to wait.

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Stefanie Pintoff — A Curtain Falls

I enjoyed Pintoff’s debut but I think this book might have been better. After the shocking events of the previous mystery, Detective Simon Ziele is splitting his time between Dobson and New York City, where he assists his former partner, now-Captain Mulvaney, with difficult cases. And he has cause to call in Alistair Sinclair when Broadway actresses are found made up and strangled on stage, with cryptic notes besides their bodies. I enjoyed this book more than the first; Sinclair’s involvement isn’t quite as prominent, and although there was a similar pattern to the murderer as in the previous volume (let’s just say it wasn’t some random out of left field), it was at least a little less telegraphed than the first. The mystery is twisty, creepy, and exciting, and Ziele is a policeman with a heart and a poetic turn of phrase. Turn-of-the-century New York, especially the glittering world of the theatre, is evocatively portrayed. Highly recommended.

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Stefanie Pintoff — In the Shadow of Gotham

Stefanie Pintoff’s first novel was one I’ve had on my radar since the cover caught my eye, and the summary inside caught my attention: a murder mystery set outside of New York City in 1905, starring a cop haunted by his tragic past and an arrogant criminologist… yep, I was definitely interested, especially after leaning that Pintoff had won an Edgar award for best debut novel. And mostly, I wasn’t disappointed.

Simon Ziele is grieving the loss of his fiance, Hannah, in the General Slocum ferry disaster. Unable to stomach New York City anymore, he has retreated to Dobson, a small town several miles north, a quiet town whose last murder occurred in 1893 and remained unsolved. Here, he could be alone with his grief–or so he thought. The brutal murder of Sarah Wingate, a young, talented mathematician, sends Ziele on a dangerous investigation. Soon after he discovers the body, Alistair Sinclair appears to offer his assistance; the professor at Columbia, a studier of the criminal mind, makes an astonishing claim: he knows the identity of Sarah Wingate’s murderer.

The mystery that follows is full of twists and turns; while I had the identity of the murderer partially correct by the middle of the book, Pintoff still managed to surprise me at the very end. I liked that it’s very fast-paced, too; the chapters are delineated by day, and the entire thing takes only five days to come to its conclusion. Ziele was slightly too trusting and willing to hand off bits of the investigation to Sinclair and his compatriots for my taste, but in general, this is a smartly written mystery that has the turn of the century city fleshed out perfectly.

Headed to the library on Monday to pick up the sequel!

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Val McDermid — The Wire in the Blood

There were numerous departures in this book from the episode of Wire in the Blood that was based upon it, so I was able to read it and have no idea what was going to happen, which is always a good thing with a mystery novel. Whether or not I liked it more or less than the television show, I’m not quite sure… and it will be hard to explain without spoiling either one.

The Wire in the Blood reunites DCI Carol Jordan and Dr. Tony Hill, outside of Bradfield. Hill is heading a unit of police detectives being trained as profilers in order to better pursue serial offenders. Jordan has been promoted, and is heading her own new squad. In the background is Jacko Vance, a golden boy and serial killer of young girls. Hill’s students, in the course of their research, stumble upon a “cluster” of similar missing girls that will end up leading them on the right track, but with tragic consequences…

What I like about these books is that while we know who the killer is, whether he will be caught, and how, is what drives the plot. It’s not someone out of left field, but he’s a tricky character, and we can follow along with the police as they desperately try and apprehend a monster. McDermid’s writing is taut with suspense, though again a little dated, definitely a product of the ’90s. The violence is sickening, which is a little hard to read, but again it’s a balance of attempting to make sure the reader is invested in the outcome vs. making it unpalatable to read.

It’s Hill and Jordan that take the center stage, however, their intuitive and analytical take on the murders, as well as their interesting personalities. There are hints of Hill’s past tangled tantalizingly in front of the reader. The ending, I think, I liked better in the television show (and it’s frustrating because I don’t want to say exactly WHY), but the book might be truer to life, and as sad as that is, it definitely made for suspenseful reading, where everything still remains at stake…

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Val McDermid — The Mermaids Singing

One of my (many) obsessions are detective novels. Although there’s a certain morbidity about it I also tend to enjoy books about profilers and serial killers as well (stemming from a fascination with abnormal psychology in college). I came to McDermid’s books in a roundabout way, having first seen the ITV show Wire in the Blood, unusual because generally I’ll try and read books before watching a TV show or movie. I really enjoyed the show, so I was curious to check out the book series.

The Mermaids Singing introduces Dr. Anthony Hill, a criminal psychologist and profiler who deals with Britain’s most notorious murderers, and DI Carol Jordan, a tough, whip-smart, but caring policewoman who’s had to make her way in a man’s world and has done a fantastic job of it. They are located in the distinctively northern town of Bradfield, where a serial killer (though the police are at first reluctant to term him as such) is picking off men and leaving their tortured bodies in extremely public areas. As the crimes grow more serious, Carol Jordan calls upon Tony Hill’s psychiatric expertise to try and catch the killer before he strikes again.

I kind of wish I had read the book before seeing the show, because I knew what was going to happen. The book was still good, and had a disturbing quality that the show didn’t have, delving into the killer’s mind (and Hill’s mind) in a way that the television medium didn’t allow. The tension crackles throughout, but it is really the characters that make this one shine. The conflicted, complex Tony Hill, tortured by as yet-unnamed past trauma, is a messed up, sexually conflicted doctor who should really be healing himself. As with the best profilers, the line that separates him from his subjects is a thin one. And Carol Jordan is an awesome female lead: ambitious, ruthless, and smart, but still with a deeply felt idealism, she takes Hill’s experience and runs with it, adding her own experience and intuition to the analysis, but neither one nor the other are solely responsible for collaring the killer.

My one complaint is that although it was fun reading, it was a little dated, definitely seeming like it was written in the mid 90s. It wasn’t just the tone but the references scattered throughout (for example the killer singing a Wet, Wet, Wet song and a few other things, like computer software that played a big part in the story seeming laughingly anachronistic now).

Still an enjoyable mystery that doesn’t play dumb with you. I’m looking forward to reading more about Jordan and Hill, especially since the show diverges from the novels in its fourth season, so I’m looking forward to some surprises.

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Camilla Läckberg — The Ice Princess

Scandinavian crime fiction has its own atmosphere, and I like it. It’s a combination of the cold weather, the impressive vistas, and the idyllic cities, and the darker, seamier underside to that idealism, an underside hidden by those in power. Crimes in the present are driven by crimes in the past; nothing is ever quite as it seems on the surface.

Camilla Läckberg is a very popular author in her native Sweden but her books are just beginning to be translated into English; this is the first I’d read of hers. Overall I rather enjoyed it. It’s not a fast-paced mystery but that’s not necessarily what you’re always looking for. Ericka Falk is the author of a number of well-regarded biographies of Swedish women writers, back in her coastal home town after the deaths of her parents in a tragic accident. While there, a face from her past, her old best friend Alexandra, is found in her bathtub, frozen and quite dead. Alex’s parents ask Ericka to write a piece about their daughter, commemorating her life, and it is through this investigation that the events of the story unfold.

The author keeps you guessing about the whys and the hows–I don’t want to ruin any surprises but her misdirection is done very well, although I would have appreciated it if she could have given the reader some clues rather than randomly mentioning on a page, “____ had figured out who the killer was” and then the reasoning never having appeared in the story previously. But that’s a minor quibble, as is the next one–Falck’s Bridget Jones-esque worrying about her weight was a little uncomfortable for me. There are a few plot lines that I felt sure would have to be resolved that weren’t even touched upon, though they were secondary plot lines in The Ice Princess, so I’m assuming they will appear in later Falck books. The characters (besides the unfortunate Spanx-wearing-episode) are all well-developed, many of them haunted by skeletons in their closets, unhappy but keeping up appearances because that is just what is done.

If you’ve read Henning Mankell you will probably enjoy these books as well; Stieg Larsson fans maybe not so much (although there are some similarities in theme, it’s just not as fast-paced or violent).

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