15 April 2007

So It Goes

Earth lost a great human being on 11 April 2007. At the age of 84, Kurt Vonnegut died in New York City. He was the author of many wonderful novels, including Slaughterhouse Five, Cat's Cradle, The Sirens of Titan, Mother Night, and Player Piano.

Discovering Vonnegut's writing was as if I had found a kind and wise uncle who always tried his best to explain how and why life is the way it is, and to reassure us all that it wouldn't be so bad if we'd just be a little nicer to each other.

Kurt Vonnegut was certainly one of The Greatest Generation's finest, and greatest writers. So much of his sensibility and world view was shaped by that horrible war in the 1940's, yet to me, born a few years after World War II was over, he seemed always contemporary and relevant.

Any time I've had the opportunity to read anything that he wrote, whether a novel, short story, or essay, I have done so eagerly and have not been disappointed. His voice, so dependable, so sane and clear, has always been worth hearing. Listen, he would say, and I did, and I was always delighted.

I will not try here to summarize his writing, that has been done elsewhere, but only to say goodbye to a great man, a hero to me and many, a great humanist, and a kind uncle willing to reassure anyone who would Listen.

Exit Wounds, by JA Jance

April 15 2007 (03:00:00) ( 1 view )

Avon Books paperback, 2004. 390 pages. (First published in hardcover by William Morrow in 2003.)
A Joanna Brady mystery.

I was first introduced to J. A. Jance as the writer of the J. P. Beaumont series. Beaumont is a detective on the Seattle Police force. Being a Western Washington dweller, I was attracted to these novels in part by being familiar with the places in which they were set, and enjoyed the references to local customs and institutions, such as the (now defunct) Doghouse Restaurant, an old-fashioned greasy spoon choked by cigarette smoke that was a favorite hangout for Seattle denizens for many decades.

My standards for mystery fiction aren't incredibly high, and reading stuff set in Seattle that was mysterious enough and diverting enough to keep my attention kept me going. And Jance has had her moments.

Several years ago I read (or, more precisely, listened to a recording of) a book by her called Hour of the Hunter. Now that was a terrific novel. It had a great story, lots of suspense and mystery, and made me curious to learn more about the Tohono O'otham tribe, whose nation spans the border between Mexico and the USA.

I regret to report that I can't give Exit Wounds the same kind of praise. It does adhere to what I consider to be the essential principles of mystery:

  • The perpetrator(s) is (are) part of the entire story, introduced as close as possible toward the beginning but not revealed until the end of the story.
  • The identity of the perpetrator is not obvious, but it is not farfetched or ridiculous -- even though it may be made to seem so until the mystery is solved.
  • The story contains plenty of interesting characters, settings, and details.
  • The mystery is not bogged down in or by the interesting characters, settings, and details.

The novel loses points with me for having unbelievable characters. My biggest complaint is the Sheriff herself. I guess I've just gotten tired of Joanna Brady. She is so good, pure, kind, and even religious, that I actually find myself disliking her. This is distracting. Her husband is nearly as perfect as she. And her daughter -- I haven't met any 13 year olds anything like Joanna's perfectly cooperative non-whining mopeless Jenny.

This is not my first Joanna Brady novel, I've read most of them, so I can't say I wasn't familiar with the character. Without doing an exhaustive re-reading and study of the series I'd have to admit that I don't really know this, but I have the feeling that Joanna has become more like the person I have described above. Perhaps I've just become more grouchy and/or sensitive about her. In any event, I was undeniably distracted by my own irritation with this issue while reading Exit Wounds.

The novel deals with the murder of a woman named Carol Mossman who lives in a mobile home on a sort of run-down ranch. She has a large number of dogs, something like 12 or more, living there. We later find that she is a "hoarder," a person with a specific mental illness compelled to take in unreasonable numbers of unwanted animals. It's explained that such people are often victims of abuse, including sexual abuse. Soon after this murder, another is committed, this time involving two women who are found near a highway several miles from the town of Bisbee, where Joanna lives and enforces the law. As the story progresses, we learn that the murders are related, and related to Mossman's family's troubles.

Underlying the murders is a complicated family dispute that involves abduction, polygamy, and membership in a strange quasi-religious sect called "The Brethren," reminiscent of some similar strange organizations and practices we've heard of in the news.

The mystery itself is good, the book is readable and free of embarrassing mistakes in detail (as far as I noticed), and I would welcome it if it were the best I could find to entertain me on an airplane trip or some other interlude of boredom.

11 April 2007

The Last Place, by Laura Lippman

William Morrow 2002. 341 pages.

Maureen and I heard about Laura Lippman recently on NPR. They were talking about her latest book, What the Dead Know. Our library has it but there are the usual dozens of prior holds on a new book, so I picked up a copy of The Last Place, an older book in the author's list of works.

This is part of a detective series, the detective's name is Tess Monaghan, a newspaper reporter turned private investigator. Tess lives in Baltimore, and this story takes place in and around that city.

This is the story of Tess's inquiry into a string of deaths that seem to be related to domestic violence. She enters into the investigation at the behest of a foundation to which one of her friends belongs. Quickly, many complications develop and it becomes obvious that she is investigating a series of murders, and they are likely committed by the same person.

Lippman uses a technique of interjecting sections from the point of view of the mysterious adversary. These are set in a sans-serif type to distinguish them from the rest of the text. I've seen similar techniques in other novels, with varying degrees of success. It works well in this book as a way to build suspense and give us sufficient insight into the criminal's motivation.

Dialogue is readable and believable in this book. Monaghan acquires an assistant named Carl, a retired turnpike guard who was closely involved in one of the murders, having found a victim's remains. Here's part of an exchange between Carl and Tess:

"Did you know Lucy Fancher before --" Tess stopped, groping for the right words.
He lifted his eyes from the box. "Before I found her head on the bridge?"
"North East isn't that small. Sometimes I think I might have seen her once or twice in town. But that's wishful thinking."
"Wishful thinking?"
"Wouldn't your rather know someone as a whole living, breathing person instead of just a head?"

The Last Place
is a good, entertaining read, and Tess Monaghan is a great fictional detective. We look forward to reading more Laura Lippman.


Wikipedia Article

Double Tap, by Steve Martini

April 11 2007 (21:27:00) ( 1 view )

A Paul Madriani Novel.
Jove (Penguin) 2006. 401 pages.
First printing: G.P. Putnam's Sons (hardcover) 2005.

Wow. Once again, Steve Martini has reminded me that he deserves nothing less than the status of such legal-thriller genre authors as Grisham and Turow. He is a master, and I often think he's even better than the others. Double Tap is nothing less than a triumph for Martini and I hope he gets the recognition and compensation he deserves.

Note to movie producers: If nobody has started a film project based on this book, run, do not walk, to this man's agent and pay what you have to for the rights. This is a terrific movie between paper covers. I don't mean to belittle or demean this novel's accomplishments as simply a novel. It is perfectly successful without leaving the printed page. I only wish to see this type of effort lavishly rewarded, and I suspect that such rewards are more available from the film rather than the print industry.

Paul Madriani is a lawyer working in the La Jolla/San Diego area. We first met him in earlier novels working in "Capital City," which one suspects to be a thinly disguised Sacramento. But Paul's life has changed since the early days. His wife passed away, the victim of cancer, his daugher has grown up, he has had some traumatic experiences with violence related to his cases, and he is a tough, mature man with strong convictions. He is, in short, the perfect modern-day noir hero. He is a type of Legal Samurai, with an aw-shucks overlay reminiscent of a Woody Allen character. I hadn't read a Paul Madriani book in some time and I felt as if I were seeing a favorite old friend again.

Paul works with a partner, Harry Hinds, a character Harry Morgan was born to play.

In this story Paul and Harry defend Emiliano Ruiz, a young special-forces veteran accused of murdering a woman for whom he had worked as a bodyguard. As the plot unfolds, we are treated to a full-fledged whodunit laced with cybernetics, Federal government malfeasance, hints about the PATRIOT act, the NSA, legislative corruption at both the State and Federal levels -- a delicious salad of thriller, mystery, and modern-day political commentary.

Ruiz is charged with the murder of Madelyn Chapman, a filthy-rich software executive who had an ongoing close working relationship with a shady "General Satz." Chapman's company, "Isotenics,Inc." seems to be in possession of a terrifically powerful database application that would enable data mining on an unprecedented scale, national if not global, and would give whoever controlled it the ability to monitor and predict the actions of all types of people, allies, enemies, whatever -- if it were given access to enough data. We are shown that Isotenics most likely stole the source code for this application from a now sick and dying programmer named Kaprosky, who helps Madriani and Hinds with their case.

Double Tap is a great, satisfying thriller and mystery, with a real surprise ending. Don't miss it, and don't miss the movie (if somebody takes my tip -- remember, you heard it here first!).