“The Seagull” by Ann Cleeves

The Seagull by Ann CleevesIs there a readers’ equivalent of “it’s not you, it’s me”? Ann Cleeves’ The Seagull is the type of book that’s usually right in my wheelhouse—British police procedural, strong female character—but it took me almost two weeks to get through. I had a lot of distractions, ranging from planning a big trip to hosting an out-of-town guest, and I often found myself unable to concentrate on the words on the page. Instead, I’d turn to my phone and scroll through Twitter or look at Instagram photos of cute hedgehogs. Or I’d pick up a different book, read the first couple pages, and then put it back down.

A few months ago, I first encountered the phrase “reading slump”—”the dreaded moment when the words on the page simply fail to captivate them and when picking up a book feels like a 50 pound weight,” according to Bookish.com. The Internet is full of advice for folks in a slump, ranging from the odd (“ripping pages out of a book you don’t like but happen to own is oddly therapeutic”) to the obvious (“reread an all-time favorite”). Were it not for my self-imposed obligation to post something here each week, I might find myself taking a bit of a break from reading. But let’s hope I pull out of this slump soon, since normally, reading is one of the best parts of my day!

As for The Seagull, this is the eighth book in Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope series; my book group was reading it, which is why I didn’t start with the first Vera book (though this feels like the sort of series where the individual novels can stand alone). It is the basis for a popular TV adaptation featuring Brenda Blethyn, who has described Vera as “big, fat and ugly.” The inspector’s appearance is frequently commented upon in the book, to the point where I felt it got a little excessive; one of her underlings notices her Velcro-strapped sandals, which reveal her “filthy” feet: “[he] felt a moment of revulsion.”

Vera is one of those detectives who is married to her job, which she does exceptionally well. In The Seagull, she is dealing with a cold case involving the discovery of two dead bodies which had remained hidden since the 1990s. One is identified right away, but the other is a mystery. Vera must consult a man in prison, John Brace, for information about the crime; Brace was a bent cop who was close friends with Vera’s late father, who frequently associated with shady figures, a group “held together by loyalty and shared secrets, that strange kind of male friendship that seemed more important to those involved than either marriage or family.”

At 400 pages, The Seagull seems a bit overlong, and the web of crimes, both modern-day and long-ago, grows almost too tangled. Apparently the Vera TV episodes each feature a complete case and clock in at a brisk 90 minutes. The story Cleeves tells in The Seagull is a good one, and maybe watching a pared-down version would prove more satisfying than reading the book.

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“Bluebird, Bluebird” by Attica Locke

Bluebird, BluebirdAs a West Coast liberal, I tend to think of Texas as a foreign land, one I don’t think I’d feel very comfortable in. I have read a lot of very fine books set in Texas, however, but I don’t think I’ve ever encountered one that captures the Lone Star State in all its contradictions as well as Attica Locke’s Bluebird, Bluebird.

A major theme of the novel is a black lawman’s feelings about his home state, one which he loves dearly but is also clear-eyed enough to recognize often provides friendly harbor to racists ranging from genteel bigots to violent white-power gangs, the modern-day equivalent of the KKK. Darren Mathews is a Texas Ranger, a member of the super-elite law enforcement squad tasked with investigating the state’s most serious crimes. (Mathews, of course, is Locke’s fictional creation, but in the real world, the first black ranger wasn’t appointed until 1988, almost 165 years after the group’s founding.) Suspended from the force after he was suspected of interfering in an investigation involving a family friend, Mathews nevertheless heads to the small town of Lark to look into a pair of homicides after he hears about the case from an FBI agent. The first victim was a black man; the second, a white woman.

“Southern fables usually went the other way around: a white woman killed or harmed in some way, real or imagined, and then, like the moon follows the sun, a black man ends up dead.”

Mathews at first tries his investigation undercover, but soon has to resort to showing off his badge when he is threatened by local members of Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. Of course, Lark also has its own sheriff, and he’s none too pleased to have an interloper in his county, particularly one whose status with the Rangers is on shaky ground. “This is my deal down here,” he tells Mathews. “We know how to take care of our own.”

There were several times when I was pretty sure I knew where the story was going, but Locke always managed to surprise me, never taking the easy or predictable way out. (One example: the carefully-drawn relationship between Mathews, whose wife Lisa has never fully accepted his work with the Rangers, and the first victim’s wife Randie.) Still, I think what I’ll remember most about this book are the passages about the Mathews family’s relationship with their home state, which no doubt feel so authentic because Locke herself is a native Texan:

“The belief that they were special, that they had the stones to endure what others couldn’t, was the most quintessentially Texas thing about them. It was an arrogance born of genuine fortitude and a streak of hardheadedness six generations deep, a Homeric shield against the petty jealousies and lethal injustices that so occupied white folks’ free time, their oppressive and intrusive gaze into every aspect of black life… The Mathews family recognized it for what it was: a fevered obsession that didn’t really have anything to do with them, a preoccupation that weakened a man looking anywhere but at himself… You could run, wouldn’t nobody judge you if you did. But you could also stay and fight.”

“A Whisper of Bones” by Ellen Hart

A Whisper of Bones by Ellen HartI thought I had established a rule that I would not be reviewing books by any of my clients, but according to the About page I set up over two years ago, “I will include a disclaimer with the review if a book is by a client or friend.” So here is my first-ever use of the Client Disclaimer! I set up Ellen Hart’s current website a few years ago, and update it once a year when she has a new book out. She’s not one of those authors who loves tinkering with her website. Still, the book lists are very useful if you want to read her mysteries in order—A Whisper of Bones is #25 in the Jane Lawless series.

Hart was always on my list of “seriously under-appreciated authors” until she won the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award last year. It “represents the pinnacle of achievement in mystery writing and was established to acknowledge important contributions to this genre, as well as for a body of work that is both significant and of consistent high quality.” I hope that prestigious honor has inspired more people to pick up the Lawless novels to see what all the fuss is about. I’ve read all of them, except for maybe two or three of the older ones; this is a series that’s gotten better with age (2005’s The Iron Girl and 2010’s The Cruel Ever After are my favorites).

Jane Lawless is a restaurateur in Minneapolis who eventually gets a side gig as a P.I. due to her success as an amateur sleuth. Her frequent partner in crime is her flamboyant best friend, Cordelia Thorn, who runs a local playhouse. Some readers have criticized Cordelia as being too over-the-top, but I think she’s the perfect foil for the more buttoned-up Jane. Plus, having spent a lot of time around theater people, I know that many of them are larger-than-life characters.

In A Whisper of Bones, Jane is hired by a woman to find her cousin, a childhood playmate whom she lost touch with due to a family feud. When Britt visited her two aunts after years of estrangement, they denied the cousin ever existed. Are they gaslighting her, or trying to hide something horrible?

The aunts run a boardinghouse, and Jane goes undercover and rents a room from them, which is convenient, to be sure. Still, it does put her right in the center of the action when Britt’s nagging questions about the past start having deadly repercussions.

Meanwhile, Jane’s former lover Julia, who has popped in and out of the series for quite a while now, has returned; she has a serious illness, and Jane lets her move into her home. Since their relationship has always been complicated (Julia has been known to play fast and loose with the truth), I am sure this will have continuing repercussions in the next Lawless mystery. Happily, Hart has signed a contract for more books, which is wonderful news for those of us who eagerly await our annual visit with Jane and Cordelia.

“The Moonstone” by Wilkie Collins

The MoonstoneA few weeks ago, my friend Vallery suggested I read  The Moonstone (1868), which is considered to be the first full-length detective novel (Edgar Allan Poe wrote some short-story mysteries in the 1840s). “If you have not read The Moonstone then that should be your first book of 2018. My all time favorite. Up there with Sherlock and Marlowe. Reread it recently in a book group and we all agreed that it reads well, and is surprisingly current.”

Well, I had never read The Moonstone, so I checked it out of the library at the end of December, thinking that I would indeed make it my first review of the new year. That obviously didn’t happen, partly because The Moonstone is very long: over 400 pages of small print. Many were the nights I fell asleep reading the novel; I finally downloaded the Kindle version (free!) and finished it while I was on vacation in late January.

This is not to say that The Moonstone isn’t a good book; I just found it a little tough going at times. The novel opens with the theft of the legendary yellow diamond, which was purloined by an English soldier during a battle between Southern Indians and the British East India Company. The soldier—a cruel and rapacious man—dies years later, leaving the diamond to his niece, Rachel Verinder. She receives it on her eighteenth birthday, and that night, it vanishes from her room in the posh Verinder estate. In an attempt to get at the truth, numerous guests who were present for Rachel’s birthday are asked to write down their personal accounts of what they witnessed.

The first narrator is Gabriel Betteredge, “house-steward in the service of Julia, Lady Verinder” (Rachel’s mother). Betteredge is a man in his 70s and completely devoted to his employer. He is an astute and often funny narrator, and I found him to be exceedingly good company; his section was my favorite one of the book, and I was a bit disappointed when, after 170 pages, Drusilla Clack took over. (Fortunately, Betteredge does return as an important character later on.) A poor relation of the wealthy Verinder family, Miss Clack is a Christian who feels it is her duty to evangelize to everyone she meets. She is also a faithful member of the Mothers’-Small-Clothes-Conversion-Society, which rescues “unredeemed fathers’ trousers from the pawnbroker, and to prevent their resumption, on the part of the irreclaimable parent… abridg[es] them immediately to suit the proportions of the innocent son.”

I was curious about whether or not pawning clothes was a common thing, and it turns out that it was! According to this article, in Victorian times, “Clothing was often pledged on a Monday and redeemed on a Saturday after the breadwinner of the family had been paid. It was worn to chapel or church on a Sunday, and pledged again the next day. This was the reason that Saturdays and Mondays were the pawnbrokers’ busiest days.” Whether anything like the Conversion Society ever existed is hard to say, but I did appreciate Collins’ satire of both Evangelicals and do-gooders. However, Miss Clack’s prose is rather turgid and overly formal, despite the occasional gem (one of her favorite tracts, on “the sinfulness of dress,” is titled “A Word With You On Your Cap-Ribbons”).

After Miss Clack, we hear from Matthew Bruff, the Verinders’ solicitor; Franklin Blake, Rachel’s cousin and love interest; Ezra Jennings, assistant to a physician; and Sergeant Cuff, the famous detective called in from London to find the missing diamond. Cuff’s arrival is a big deal (“If half the stories I have heard are true, when it comes to unraveling a mystery, there isn’t the equal in England of Sergeant Cuff!” exclaims Franklin Blake), though when he shows up, he seems more interested in the estate’s rose garden than in the crime; it’s not difficult to see Cuff as the prototype for every eccentric detective in the annals of mystery fiction.

Considering that it took me a month of on-and-off reading to finish The Moonstone vs. about four hours to polish off current best-seller The Woman in the Window, I can’t say that I’m eager to jump right back into the world of Victorian fiction. But reading The Moonstone in 2018, I was pleasantly surprised by how sympathetic Collins was to some of the “underdog” characters in the book, like the odd-looking, racially-ambiguous Ezra Jennings, thief-turned-housemaid Rosanna Spearman, and even the Indian men pursuing their lost treasure (intimating that the diamond should have stayed in India rather than be plundered by a greedy, unpleasant Englishman was probably a pretty progressive stance in the 1860s). The prose can be a bit tough going for someone not used to 19th-century novels, but in general, I agree that The Moonstone does hold up and is well worth reading 150 years after its debut.

Note: If you’re not familiar with Collins’ personal life, read this review for a taste of just how unconventional he was.

“The House of Unexpected Sisters” and “My Italian Bulldozer” by Alexander McCall Smith

The House of Unexpected SistersI always look forward to my annual visit with Precious Ramotswe and her colleagues at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, but as I read The House of Unexpected Sisters, it struck me as… even more slight than most of the books in this series. There are never murders in these mysteries, but there are always a couple good puzzles to solve. In this one, there are two, and they are rather flimsy: first, there’s a woman who claims she was unjustly fired from her job at an office-furniture store; second, during the course of that investigation, Mma Ramotswe finds out that there’s another woman with her same last name in the area, and wonders who she is. (Spoiler alert: check out the book’s title.)

The novel hits all the usual beats readers expect from these series: Mma Ramotswe’s ever-fraught relationship with the prickly Mma Makutsi, her secretary-turned-Principal Investigating Officer; long afternoons spent eating fruitcake and discussing matters with the wise Mma Potokwane; thoughts about the importance of cattle; an appearance by perpetual antagonist Violet Sephotho; etc. However, about three-quarters of the way into this rather slim volume, Mma Ramotswe learns some truths about her late father, and readers get to see an emotional side of her that we’ve never before encountered. I will admit that by the time I finished the book, I felt pretty satisfied.

Even though I wound up enjoying The House of Unexpected Sisters, I do hope that next year’s cases are a little meatier. And that Mma Makutsi remembers that she has a baby (seriously, there’s a point in this book where she seems to have forgotten).

My Italian BulldozerAlexander McCall Smith’s bibliography now spans two full pages at the front of his books, and he seems to publish at least three novels a year, but the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is the only one I’ve ever really gotten into (Sisters is #18, and I’ve read them all). After finishing Sisters, I decided to try one of his recent stand-alones, My Italian Bulldozer. It’s a breezy read about a Scottish travel writer who is forced to rent a bulldozer to get around the Tuscan countryside (shrug! What can you do? It’s Italy!). His girlfriend has recently left him for her personal trainer, and Paul, the writer, is hoping to finish his latest book. There may be life lessons along the way. And romance.

Once you get past the whole bulldozer thing, the book plays out fairly predictably, but there are worse ways to spend a couple hours than reading about Tuscan food and scenery.

“Beau Death” by Peter Lovesey

Beau Death by Peter LoveseyYou can always count on Peter Lovesey to provide you with a solid, well-written, well-plotted novel. Year after year, Lovesey just keeps publishing fine crime fiction—he’s written over 40 books—and funnily enough, just a few hours after I had been musing, “Is Peter Lovesey taken for granted?” the news broke that he had been awarded Grand Master status by the Mystery Writers of America. I hope the honor will bring more attention to his stellar body of work.

Beau Death is the latest entry in his long-running series about Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond, who works in the historic city of Bath. As the novel opens, a block of run-down townhouses is being demolished, and the wrecking ball reveals a surprise in one of the attics: a skeleton, dressed in an 18th-century costume, sitting in a chair. The police are called in, and when a goofy photo of Diamond with the remains goes viral, people start speculating that the dead man could be Beau Nash.

Nash was known as the “King of Bath,” a local icon who hosted royalty, politicians and famous writers during his tenure as town’s unofficial Master of Ceremonies. Eventually, scandal and debts caused him to survive on a small income from city funds, and when he died, he was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave—but could he somehow have wound up in a townhouse attic in an unfashionable suburb instead?

I will admit that I thought Beau Nash was Lovesey’s own creation, kind of a take-off on Beau Brummel, but he was real. Not real is the book’s Beau Nash Society, a fashionable, invitation-only Bath club whose members are required to attend meetings dressed in period costume. If the corpse isn’t the real Beau, perhaps he was a modern-day member of the Society, and with a little help from his girlfriend Paloma (an expert on historic clothing), Diamond will need to don a wig and breeches in order to discover the dead man’s identity.

Unlike a lot of crime fiction series which overwhelm you with their characters’ back stories, Beau Death can easily be read as a stand-alone. There are some references made to incidents in Diamond’s past, but this really isn’t a series which demands to be read in order. Though mystery fans who are just discovering Lovesey will no doubt be delighted to find that he has such a rich and deep back catalog to enjoy. His Grand Master award is well-deserved indeed.

“Gone to Dust” by Matt Goldman

Gone to Dust by Matt GoldmanI read a lot of mysteries and thrillers, but you know who appears to read far more of them than I do? Lee Child. It seems like half the books I pick up these days have a blurb from the author of the best-selling Jack Reacher series prominently displayed on the cover. Gone to Dust by Matt Goldman, for instance, boasts this Child quote: “A perfect blend of light touch and dark story—I want more of Nils Shapiro.”

I’ve been suspicious of blurbs ever since a certain best-selling writer once told me at a mystery conference that she doesn’t actually read most of the books she blesses with her public praise. She said it jokingly, but I suspect she may have been kidding on the square. I’ll say this for Child, though—his “light touch and dark story” comment actually sums up Gone to Dust pretty well. And it’s a fast read, so I’m going to guess he really did get through its 300 pages. (I will pause here to note that Child is a great guy who is truly supportive of his fellow crime-fiction authors; he is just so promiscuous with his blurbs that I find it kind of funny.)

The premise of Gone to Dust is pure genius: the killer empties dust-filled vacuum-cleaner bags all over the victim and throughout her house, thus making it virtually impossible for the crime scene unit to do their usual thing, picking up stray fibers with tweezers and the other stuff you see on “C.S.I.” Maggie Somerville lived and died in the tony Minneapolis suburb of Edina, which hardly ever has murders occurring within its city limits. The lack of usable physical evidence means this crime will be especially tricky to solve, so police detective Anders Ellegaard calls in his old chum, private eye Nils Shapiro. (He’s Jewish, but was named after the Scandinavian man who saved his dad’s life.)

Shapiro is divorced, but still hung up on his ex-wife, with whom he remains on friendly terms (and by “friendly,” I mean they still sleep together). He’s pushing 40, but like so many wisecracking P.I.s you meet in novels, women seem to find him irresistible. He begins interviewing Maggie’s friends and exes, and eventually learns that there’s a lot more to the case than meets the eye—and those revelations create conflict with the police department that hired him.

Goldman, a former TV writer who worked on “Seinfeld,” “The New Adventures of Old Christine” and several other shows, is a Minnesota native, and I’m sure locals will appreciate the copious references to Twin Cities geography (“The north end of the office park is bordered by Highway 494 and the south end is bordered by Normandale Lake, the Hyland downhill-ski area,” goes one typical passage). I’ve only been there once, so I don’t know my Lake Street from my Lake Calhoun, but the author’s descriptions of the snow and frigid cold of a Minnesota winter impart a sense of place more than the GPS-style navigation.

A first novel, Gone to Dust contains perhaps a few too many private-eye tropes, but for the most part it’s a clever and well-paced whodunit.