29 September 2009

Black Money, by Ross MacDonald

Vintage Crime 1996, copyright 1965. ISBN 0679768106. 238 pages.

I recall being introduced many years ago to Ross MacDonald's work by someone who said MacDonald was a latter-day Raymond Chandler. I suppose that was true, latter day being the 60s rather than the 30s, but that was a long time ago. (Incidentally, the author's real name was Kenneth Millar. Click on the title of this entry for a link to a detailed article about Millar/MacDonald's life and work.)

In Black Money, Lew Archer is hired by a wealthy young man who has lost the girl of his dreams to a man who appears to be some kind of a scoundrel. Martel claims to be from France, a political refugee unpopular with the DeGaulle regime. Young Virginia Fablon is very much taken with Martel, and cannot be persuaded to see him as anyone other than who he claims to be.

Virginia's father died in what was judged a suicide about seven years before this story takes place. Her mother is beginning to find it difficult to maintain a lifestyle such as that enjoyed by her neighbors in this seaside country-club community of the rich.

When Archer begins to investigate Martel, he is met with threats, and soon senses a greater mystery than the simple seduction of young Virginia by this mysterious and unlikely man.

As one always expects in MacDonald's work, there are great characters, a deviously complicated plot, and plenty of gritty observations from the narrator, Lew Archer. This is the hardboiled detective formula at its very best, and every page is a pleasure.

The lobby of the hotel was the mouth of a tourist trap which had lost its bite. There were scuff-marks on the furniture, dust on the philodendrons. The bellhop wore an old blue uniform which looked as if he had fought through the Civil War in it.

27 September 2009

The Beekeeper's Apprentice, by Laurie R. King

Picador Books, 1994. 346 pages. ISBN 978-0-312-42736-8

A wonderful novel in which we are introduced to young Mary Russell, a British orphan of some means, who meets Sherlock Holmes. Holmes has become a retired gentleman living in the country and keeping bees. Russell becomes, as one would guess, his apprentice.

This sort of thing could be done very badly. The Apprentice is done extremely well, and is an absolutely delightful read. There are more books in this series, this is the first, one wonders if they will be as good.

Holmes and Russell have several adventures together in this book, culminating in one enormously complicated effort to identify and capture a master criminal who attempts to kill Russell, Holmes, and Watson (yes, Dr. Watson lives, too) during the course of events.

Bone Rattler, by Eliot Pattison

A Mystery of Colonial America. Counterpoint. 2008. 460 pages. ISBN-10: 1593761856 ISBN-13: 978-1593761851

When we heard that the author of the many Inspector Shan mysteries had written a new novel set in the American Colonies in 1758, we were eager to find out what that would be like, and were not disappointed.

Duncan McCallum is a prisoner aboard a convict ship bound for the New World. He is a Scot, unfriendly to the British king, whose life and family have been destroyed for his treason to the Empire. During the voyage, there are some strange and actually surreal events that set the stage for what transpires when he lands in New York, indentured to Lord Ramsey as a teacher for his children.

Ramsey's children include an elder daughter named Sarah, who seems afflicted with some great sadness from a past about which no one will speak. As events unfold in the New York wilderness, her story and character are revealed to be quite fascinating.

Native American lore and culture play an important role in the plot of this complex mystery. As we move deeper into the fabric of the story, the Iroquois characters increase in number, depth, and function. It is hard to read this without thinking of Pattison's obvious love and respect for the ancient culture of Tibet reflected in the Inspector Shan series. The parallels between China's invasion and destruction of Tibet and that of the British and French invasion of America and destruction of its native culture and people are unavoidable.

Pattison explores the spirituality of the natives of America in the face of the European invasion, and lays upon that the tapestry of England's exploitation and domination of Scotland and its culture and people. Scots allied with Indians against the English oppressors in this story make the point clear if not obvious. The history of our world is one of domination, disrespect for indigenous culture, and the trampling of religion and tradition in the name of whatever power has the upper hand.

With all this history and moralization included in the text, one might think this would be a dull read, but Pattison's masterful writing and plot delivery keeps us involved in this excellent mystery and more or less painlessly feeds us a great deal of factual information about the Colonial period and the deeds of those who founded what became the United States of America.