Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Crossing Places: Elly Griffiths

From the back of the paperback edition:
Forensic archeologist Dr. Ruth Galloway is in her late thirties. She lives happily alone with her two cats in a bleak, remote area near Norfolk, land that was sacred to its Iron Age inhabitants—not quite earth, not quite sea. But her routine days of digging up bones and other ancient objects are harshly upended when a child’s bones are found on a desolate beach. Detective Chief Inspector Nelson calls Galloway for help, believing they are the remains of Lucy Downey, a little girl who went missing a decade ago and whose abductor continues to taunt him with bizarre letters containing references to ritual sacrifice, Shakespeare, and the Bible. 
I have come late to this series. But there is one positive to this... I have several more books to read. If the series continues to be as good as many reviewers say, then I have much to look forward to.

I thought this would be an easy review to write and I wanted it to be short and sweet. The story was compelling, both Ruth's personal story and the mystery.  My interest in the book never waned. Yet the resolution of the mystery and Ruth's story was disappointing to me, and I was not sure if I would like future books in the series. This surprised me because I have read numerous reviews of this book and later ones in the series that are extremely positive. So of course I will have to continue reading the series and give at least one more book a try. This will be easy because my husband has the first three books.

This series garners praise for the setting and the characters. Some reviewers liked both these elements in the first book but admitted that the mystery itself was less satisfying. In this book, I did like the development of the two main characters, Ruth and Nelson, and their interactions, but the secondary characters did not do much for me at this point. This is a debut novel, so I should not expect perfection. I did find Ruth's character to be believable and realistic; she isn't perfect and she is not young and strikingly beautiful. She is way more intrepid than me in her work life and her sleuthing, but that is true of almost all female mystery protagonists.

I do not enjoy stories told in third person present tense, but that was a small distraction. As far as how many more books I read in the series, it seems that it comes down to whether they can maintain my interest based on character interactions and story and whether the mystery elements either improve or prove to be less important to me.

Other reviews or overviews are here:  Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, crimepieces, Petrona, Reactions to Reading, View from the Blue House


Publisher:  Mariner Books, 2010 (orig. pub. 2009) 
Length:   303 pages
Format:   trade paperback
Series:    Ruth Galloway
Setting:   Norfolk, UK
Genre:     Mystery
Source:   Borrowed from my husband

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Books of 1952: The Ivory Grin by Ross Macdonald

Rich Westwood at his blog Past Offences (classic crime reviews and news) has challenged readers to blog about a book or movie from 1952 during the month of August. This review of The Ivory Grin by Ross Macdonald is my submission for the 1952 book challenge.

Short summary from this review at
Archer is hired by the archetypal mystery client who won’t tell him anything about herself, to find a young woman she won’t tell him much about either. Archer knows from the first moments that he is being conned, but he’s both a little short on cash and a romantic at heart, and he just can’t resist the challenge that goes with the $100.
The book starts with a scene in Lew Archer's office, introducing the client:
I found her waiting at the door of my office. She was a stocky woman of less than medium height, wearing a blue slack suit over a blue turtleneck sweater, and a blue mink stole that failed to soften her outlines. Her face was squarish and deeply tanned, its boyish quality confirmed by dark hair cut short at the nape. She wasn't the type you'd expect to be up and about at eight thirty in the morning, unless she'd been up all night. As I unlocked the door she stood back and looked up at me with the air of an early bird surveying an outsize worm.
Archer finds her behavior very irritating very quickly but finds the $100 for two days' work that she is offering hard to pass up.
Her hard dry glance went over me almost tangibly and rested on my mouth. "You look all right. But you sound kind of Hollywood to me."
I was in no mood to swap compliments. The ragged edge on her voice, and her alternation of fair and bad manners bothered me. It was like talking to several persons at once, none of them quite complete.
As with Raymond Chandler, it is the style of writing that I enjoyed the most. The plot was very complex, and I got lost more than once. The characters are well-drawn, but I did get confused occasionally. I did not guess the resolution to the story, and I thought it was handled well. I don't expect to be able to figure out the plots, but I usually do try, without really meaning to.

The young woman who Lew Archer is seeking is a black woman, but light-skinned enough to have passed for white at times. It was good to read a vintage mystery which handles race relations evenhandedly. There are several black characters, their story is followed throughout the novel, and the characters are portrayed compassionately. This story also contrasts between those who have wealth (or want it badly) and those who are closer to poverty.

I recently read Hardboiled America by Geoffrey O'Brien. That book points out that...
With Lew Archer himself, Macdonald pulls off the neat trick of creating a character largely by negative means. Try to imagine him apart from the structure of the book and he becomes a cipher. We see through Archer's eyes, and react with him, but in the end he is little more than a window through which we perceive the real figures of interest — the people who Archer is investigating. He is the interviewer, the neutral voice that calmly elicits anguished testimony. On one level, he is a brilliant dramatic device, a device that works because of Macdonald's mastery of dialogue.
Possibly this is why I was uncomfortable with the story. I wasn't sure why Archer was continuing his investigation against all odds and with little obvious motivation, other than he felt he had to do the right thing for the people he was now involved with.

A reviewer at Goodreads starts his review of this book thusly:
This, the fourth novel in the Lew Archer series, is very good but not exceptional (at least not according to the standards of this exceptional series).
I hope this is true because I did like this book but was not overwhelmed by his skills, and I want to like his other books. I like the reviewer's comments so I recommend that you go read the whole review.

I have a problem when first reading the icons of mystery; my expectations are too high. I want to be bowled over with brilliance, and if that does not happen, I am disappointed. Often, when I come back to another book by the same author, I enjoy it much more because I now know what to expect.  This book is a fine book, but I was expecting more.

I think I will read The Moving Target next, which is the first book in the series and has been adapted into a film starring Paul Newman, titled Harper. I will re-watch that movie after reading the book.

The author's real name was Kenneth Millar and he was married to crime novelist Margaret Millar. They lived for a while in Santa Barbara, California, although both also lived in Canada when younger.


Publisher: Bantam Books, 1984 (orig. pub. by Alfred A. Knopf, 1952)
Length:  249 pages
Format: paperback
Series:  Lew Archer novels, #4
Setting: Los Angeles, California and surrounding areas
Genre:  Mystery
Source: purchased my copy

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

I Murdered My Library: Linda Grant

From the book description at Amazon:
What happens when you begin to build a library in childhood and then find you have too many books? From a small collection held together by a pair of plaster of Paris horse-head bookends to books piled on stairs, and in front of each other on shelves, books cease to furnish a room and begin to overwhelm it. At the end of 2013, novelist Linda Grant moved from a rambling maisonette over four floors to a two bedroom flat with a tiny corridor-shaped study. The trauma of getting rid of thousands of books raises the question of what purpose personal libraries serve in contemporary life and the seductive lure of the Kindle. ...
Linda Grant is an award-winning novelist and non-fiction writer. Her novel WHEN I LIVED IN MODERN TIMES won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2000 and THE CLOTHES ON THEIR BACKS was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2008 and won the South Bank Show Award.

In May 2014, Moira at Clothes in Books featured this Kindle Single on her blog. In July, Col at Col's Criminal Library read and reviewed the essay also, sharing his thoughts about keeping books and culling books.

Then my husband read it and here is his review at Goodreads:
Fascinating account of growing up shy and in love with books, of building a library and mercilessly purging it, of patronizing favorite book stores and seeing them vanish, of moving from printed books to e-books in a world that reads less and less. This eloquent work - at less than 30 pages - is really much too brief.
Knitters and crocheters have their yarn stash, I have my book stash. The majority of the books I own are unread -- my TBR books on bookshelves, in stacks, or even in boxes in the garage. I have kept some books that are special to me. Specific authors that are favorites or authors that I can see rereading some year, and these two sets of authors may overlap. I also hold on to books with great covers that I cannot bear to part with. I even collect books with certain covers to a limited extent, but they are only a small fraction of the books I own. (My husband owns more books than I do, and more of his books are already read, so we have no arguments about the validity of owning a lots of books or hanging on to them.)

Linda Grant's essay was an enjoyable read. As I went through highlighting the parts I liked or that spoke to me especially, it was interesting to find the highlights that my husband had added. I am an indiscriminate highlighter when reading Kindle books, but as in other areas, my husband is much more restrained. We both highlighted this area:
I am the adult outcome of the shy, awkward only child who, instead of running around in the garden or clambering on slides and swings or slapping bats against balls or skipping down muddy lanes, preferred, above all else, as I still do, to stay indoors and read. Only children are no good socially.
I do take issue with this statement about small houses:
Now, in an apartment on the Mediterranean, the same authors were being dumped because no one wanted to read them. They are the detritus not just of the digital revolution but of disposable living and small houses.
I have lived in small houses and apartments and condos all of my life. The only time I lived in a large house, I had few books and was very unhappy. Since then, I have amassed books in the small places I have lived, with husband and son. Every room except the kitchen is filled with books. All of the walls of the small dining room are covered with book cases. I have books in stacks on the floor, on tables, even in place of plants on plant stands. And the overflow is in boxes in the garage.

I have no objection to culling books. My culling is gradual and voluntary, not forced. If we compare my culling and Linda Grant's ... she is talking about getting rid of a lot of books she has read and treasured and kept as a kind of legacy. Now she hits a point in her life where she has to cut back drastically and it hurts. It is painful to make decisions like this.

Grant also talks about bookstores, and getting books as a child. My family could not afford to buy books when I was a child. Almost everything I read came from the library. It wasn't until I had a job in my late teens that I could afford to go to a bookstore and purchase a book. And I did not do it much then. It was not until I met my husband that I changed from borrowing books from the library to buying books to keep. So, although Linda Grant and I are around the same age, she has been acquiring books for a couple of decades longer than I have.

I do love bookstores, and if I could turn back time, that is what I would want to return to. The area I live in has never had loads of bookstores, either independent or chains. The population does not support them. We used to have a Barnes & Noble and a Borders, but both were closed. We used to have more independent bookstores and some that were specifically for children's books and even one bookstore that specialized in crime fiction. The one bookstore that has always been my favorite is Chaucer's Books; it has been at different locations over the years, but is still in existence, in a great location. And it has a wonderful crime fiction selection.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Frozen Dead: Bernard Minier

Excerpt from summary at the publisher's website:
Saint-Martin-de-Comminges is a small town nestled in the French Pyrenees. The kind of place where winters are harsh and unforgiving and where nothing ever happens.
Until the winter morning when a group of workers discover the headless, flayed body of a horse, hanging suspended from the edge of a frozen cliff.
On the same day the gruesome discovery takes place, Diane Berg, a young psychiatrist starts her first job at a high-security asylum for the criminally insane, just a few miles away. 
From the beginning, this book had two strikes against it. It starts with the gruesome death of an animal and it is nearly 500 pages long. I have been doing better with very long books lately, but I would never choose to read one on an e-reader. As my son reminded me, I didn't do proper research before choosing this book to review through NetGalley. Now I am glad I did not, because I did enjoy reading the book. Had I known more about it in advance, I probably would have rejected it.

The action switches back and forth between the investigation, mostly taking place in town and in the surrounding areas, and the asylum. The story is told mostly from the point of view of Commandant Martin Servaz from the nearby town of Toulouse and the new psychologist at the asylum, Diane Berg. Diane serves as a clever way to provide the reader with information on the asylum, but some of her activities in an institution full of very scary criminals are a tad unbelievable. Yet, many stories of this type depend on the curious, intrepid character to move things along.

It was interesting getting a look at how French investigative departments work. In this case, the civilian police  force and the gendarmerie are cooperating, with a primary investigator from each group. The investigators feel that their time is being wasted. They think they should be working on homicides, not the death of an animal; they are only assigned to the case because the animal belongs to a rich and powerful man.

Soon enough there are equally gruesome murders of humans to be dealt with. Although the crimes are violent and depraved, they are not dwelled upon too much. Partly due to the types of inmates at the asylum, partly due to evidence found at the crime scenes, there is a distinct possibility that someone at the asylum is involved, either inmate or employee.

The main investigator, Servaz, is divorced and has a teen-aged daughter that he is worried about. Throughout the book there are hints of potential romances but for various reasons those do not go anywhere, which I liked because I don't usually care for romances in mysteries. There were many well defined secondary characters, and the author kept me guessing as to what the solution to the crimes was. The plot is complex, with more than one mystery to be solved, and I was surprised with the ending.

This book was almost too thrillerish for me, but I found the action to be believable and the twists and turns of the plot kept me interested through all 497 pages. I even stayed up late to finish the book. As far as the level of gritty, graphic depictions of crimes (after the fact), the book did not exceed my threshold in that area.

Marina Sofia has reviewed this book at Crime Fiction Lover. I first read about this book at Marina Sofia's blog, findingtimetowrite.


Publisher:  Macmillan, 2014 (orig. pub. as Glacé, 2011)
Length:  497 pages
Format:  e-book
Series:  1st book in a new series
Setting:  France, Pyrenees
Genre:   Mystery, Thriller
Translated:  From the French by Alison Anderson
Source:  Provided a copy for review by publisher, via NetGalley.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Loot: Aaron Elkins

Extract from summary at Goodreads:
April 1945: In the last convulsive days of World War II a convoy of Nazi trucks loaded with Europe's greatest art treasures winds its way through the Alps toward a cavernous Austrian salt mine. With the Allies closing in and chaos erupting, a single truck silently disappears into a mountain snowstorm with its cargo of stolen masterpieces.
Fifty years later, in a seedy Boston pawnshop, one of the truck's paintings surfaces at last, pawned for $100 by a smalltime Russian thug. The next day, the shop owner, Simeon Pawlovsky, himself a Nazi death camp survivor, is dead, the life brutally beaten out of him. The painting is gone.
Once he examined the painting, Simeon suspected that it was a masterpiece, and called in art historian Benjamin Revere for advice on how to proceed. After Simeon's death, Ben ends up on an international hunt for the rightful owner of the painting and along the way runs into the Russian mafia. He is just a regular guy who knows a lot about art and especially the plundering of art during World War II. He isn't a hero but he doesn't give up easily, and he has a conscience. He feels responsible for Simeon's death, and feels he must do what he can to find out who murdered him.

I am currently reading Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel.  (And previously had watched the movie by the same name and the documentary The Rape of Europa.) So this topic is very much in my mind right now. I have had this book for about eight years and this was the perfect time for me to finally read it.

It is a shame I waited this long to read the book because it was highly entertaining. The characterization is great; Ben is sharply drawn, and this is also true of many of the lesser characters. There is a romantic interest, and that is well done. The story is told in an entertaining way with just the right amount of humor. The eventual resolution is not obvious at all.

In the acknowledgments, Aaron Elkins thanks Lane Faison, "a young lieutenant in the three-man OSS Art Looting Investigation Team" for answering questions about the German looting of art objects. Although Faison does not feature heavily in Monuments Men, the author of that book tells a moving story about inteviewing Faison at the age of 98 in the Author's Note.

Yvette, at In So Many Words, is a big fan of Aaron Elkins, and especially this book. She goes into a lot of detail about the book and its background here.

Aaron Elkins has written other series, and I have read a few of the ones about forensic anthropologist Gideon Oliver. The current covers of the books for this series all feature skeletons, so I have copies of almost all of the books, and will read more eventually. My son has read more of those books than I have, and enjoyed them a lot.


Publisher:   Avon, 1999.
Length:       376 pages
Format:       paperback
Setting:       Boston, Massachusetts; St. Petersburg, Russia; Budapest, Hungary
Genre:         Mystery, art history

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Motherhunt (Nero Wolfe Mystery TV series)

It has taken me a while to write up a book to movie post on Motherhunt for many reasons. I love the Nero Wolfe series by Rex Stout and The Mother Hunt is one of my favorite books in the series. I enjoyed every episode in the Nero Wolfe Mystery series shown on A&E in 2000-2001. Thus it is hard for me to step away from the experience of watching them and evaluate them.

The Nero Wolfe series was written between 1934 and 1976 and each book was set in the time that the book was written. The characters did not age over the time the series was written. Each of the episodes of the Nero Wolfe Mystery series is set in the 1950's, so some of the adaptations in this series may be a bit different from the book just because of the time setting. In the case of The Mother Hunt, this probably makes no difference, since the year of publication was 1963. I have given an overview of the Nero Wolfe mysteries in book format and the TV series in this post, so I won't repeat all of that here.

It may be that this series would be most enjoyed by those who already are familiar with the Nero Wolfe mysteries. Each episode emphasizes the quirks of Wolfe's household, especially the adaptations of the full-length books. The orchids that Wolfe spends many of his waking hours tending, Fritz's cooking and Wolfe's obsession with food, Wolfe's reluctance to leave the house or, for that matter, to even work on a case.

In The Mother Hunt, Wolfe's client is Lucy Valdon. She has been caring, temporarily, for a baby that has been left in her vestibule. She has approached Wolfe to find the identity of the mother and determine if her husband was the father of the child. The hunt for the mother starts a series of events leading to a murder that Wolfe must solve.

For some reason, The Mother Hunt was given the title Motherhunt in the TV series. This adaptation was shown as two parts on TV, but is combined into one long episode on DVD. I had missed watching it the first time we viewed the episodes on DVD because the disc it was on was damaged. After reading the book in June, we rented the disc from Netflix and watched the episode. It was a faithful adaptation, although I felt that Penelope Ann Miller played the Lucy Valdon part a bit frothier than she was in the book. I will note that my husband (who has not read the books) liked her in the role. She was very appealing, and the overall mood of the adaptation was appropriate.

Here is a good example of how the TV series picks up some of the quirky behavior of the novels. This is a quote from the book:
"Do you like eggs?"
She laughed. She looked at me, so I laughed too.
Wolfe scowled. "Confound it, are eggs comical? Do you know how to scramble eggs, Mrs. Valdon?"
"Yes, of course."
"To use Mr. Goodwin's favorite locution, one will get you ten that you don't. I'll scramble eggs for your breakfast and we'll see. Tell me forty minutes before you're ready."
Her eyes widened. "Forty minutes?"
"Yes. I knew you didn't know."
The TV adaptation includes this scene where Wolfe cooks breakfast for Lucy and Archie and shows her how eggs should be scrambled. Maybe boring to some, but absolutely enchanting to me.  (I actually learned how to cook scrambled eggs this way in a Home Economics class in elementary school and they are delicious.)

In addition to Penelope Ann Miller, there were other roles I enjoyed. Of course, Maury Chaykin as Wolfe and Timothy Hutton as Archie are wonderful. Chaykin may overplay his role a bit, but Wolfe is larger than life and he puts that over well. Bill Smitrovich plays the recurring role of Inspector Cramer. Saul Rubinek, one of my favorite actors, plays Lon Cohen (a newspaperman) in this episode and others. Griffin Dunne and Carrie Fisher play smaller but crucial roles.

This movie review is submitted for the 2014 Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey.

Motherhunt (2002), A&E Network
Cast: Maury Chaykin, Timothy Hutton, Bill Smitrovich, Colin Fox, Saul Rubinek
Director:  (as Alan Smithee)
Adapted by: