A Literary Cavalcade

Literary comments by Robert A. Parker on a wide range of serious 20th and 21st century novels

The Sound of Things Falling, by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

This is an excellent novel, written with a blend of emotional, psychological, and poetic sensibility. It begins as a story of human relationships, evolves into a story of modern Colombia, and then returns to the human relationships, but on a less emotional, rational level—a level perhaps meant to match the barren, isolated character of mountain-enclosed Bogota.

The narrator of this story is Antonio Yammara, a young law professor. He becomes fascinated by Ricardo Laverde, a mysterious character he encounters in a billiard parlor. Curious, Antonio befriends him. One day, he helps Laverde find a cassette player, sees him crying as he listens to it, and then follows him into the street to learn what prompted those tears.

Whereupon, Antonio’s life changes. For Laverde is assassinated on the street by two men on a motorcycle, and Antonio himself is seriously wounded—a wound in the groin which will slowly affect his marriage to his new wife, Aura. But the immediate question is: why was Laverde killed? And the more Antonio probes the stranger’s past to find the answer, the more the reader becomes involved in that mystery. As the Impac Dublin Award cites: “Through a masterly command of layered time periods, spiralling mysteries and a noir palette, [the work] reveals how intimate lives are overshadowed by history; how the past preys on the present; and how the fate of individuals as well as countries is molded by distant, or covert, events.”

The intrigue begins when Antonio discovers the cassette Laverde was listening to. It is the recording of a plane descending over the mountains of Columbia at night, and crashing. Why was Laverde so moved? Antonio then receives a note from Laverde’s daughter Maya, a bee-keeping recluse who has left behind cold and rainy Bogota for the hot and humid lowlands. She wants to know the last moments of her father’s life, while the professor wants to learn more about Laverde and why he was killed. Their journey into the past will flower, even if frustrated by a failure to communicate sexually.

The author delves for much of the book into that past, and a slow, process of discovery and revelation will follow rather than a chronological story. Maya describes how Laverde met her mother, an American Peace Corps worker named Elaine Fritts, and how they settled in the lowlands and raised Maya. The author also creates in interesting side story about how and why this American girl came to Colombia, and her reaction to helping its people. The girl also encounters other Americans, ambitious youth who later contribute their own efficiency to the drug trade, and whom Vasquez uses to implicate America’s involvement at both ends of the drug war.

But the focus is on the elusive Laverde. He is a pilot, and Antonio learns that a job of smuggling marijuana into the United States corrupted him. Which is when this novel becomes the story of Colombia in the last half of the 20th century. It is a story of suspicion and violence, of fear, helplessness, and change. Colombia’s loss of integrity, and of illusion, will be caused by the drug lord Pablo Escobar; but Vasquez will reveal the consequences through the story of Laverde, first his capture and then his return.

Except, Antonio still doesn’t know why his friend was killed in front of him. Indeed, the reader himself can only guess. For that death is not the point of the book. The point is what it symbolizes, the fear and violence that took over Columbia in the second half of the century, and the uncertainty that ruled people’s lives. Perhaps Antonio’s impotence that follows his own wounding is also a symbol of Colombia’s impotence during these drug wars, except it is carried too far for me in the novel’s final pages. We are apparently meant to see in the loneliness and helplessness of Antonio the same qualities in the life of his country. But for me, that climactic return to Antonio’s personal story leaves an open end, and a resulting emptiness.

It is really the telling of this story that raises this novel to the level of literature. Not the story itself, which is about the death of two people, one in the present and one in the past. It is in the multi-levels of the search for an explanation of those deaths. It is in that search, one by Antonio and one by Maya, for different reasons; and then the raising of that search to represent the search by all of Colombians for the answer to the uncertainty, the violence, and the lack of control in their daily life.

The sound of things falling also represents the many levels of this novel. It begins with the cockpit sounds when the plane is falling but includes Antonio’s falling when he is wounded, as well as lives falling apart, such as his life with Aura, Elaine with her American idealism, and Colombian society as a whole, with its own tears and its bodies falling in drug-related murders. The symbolic use made of falling also mirrors the many social and political meanings that the events of this novel represent.

Edmund White, in The Times Book Review, calls this novel “a page turner, but it’s also a deep meditation on fate and death.” As it surely is. The fates, especially, of Antonio, Aura, and Maya, are changed by the independent deaths of Laverde and his wife Elaine—with those deaths being separate on one level and connected on another. Just as the events of these personal lives are disconnected on one level to the lives and all Colombians, but yet are connected on another.

Indeed, Vasquez hits home to me when he writes: “No one who lives long enough can be surprised to find their biography has been molded by distant events, by other people’s wills, with little or no participation from our own decisions.” Thus, there are “subterranean currents” that shape our lives. Indeed, my own life was radically changed by the Korean War and then by a casual encounter with the girl I married. All of which re-enforces my justification of the arbitrary decisions that authors will make when they introduce something new into the lives of their characters. For in the world of fiction, the author is his own God, and is the arbiter of each character’s fate.

The strength of this novel lies in the complexity of a drug- contaminated society that has been distilled into the personal lives of a law professor, an airplane pilot, a Peace Corps worker, and a bee-keeping recluse. It is not a story of violence but of human relationships, and of the complex tie that links memory and trauma. (August, 2017)

where my heart used to beat, by Sebastian Faulks

This is an unusual novel, an ambitious one, a deep one, and almost a successful one. It is Faulks apparently summing up through a fictional story the world of the 20th century, a world he has lived in, has not fully understood, and whose meaning he is searching for here.

His hero seems to be a stand-in for the author. He is Robert Hendricks, a psychiatrist who seeks in the workings of the mind the meaning of the life he has lived. How the mind does work is an obvious interest of the author, for his most successful novel in my eyes was Human Traces, in which two doctors seek to learn how the mind works. One doctor sees a link between the physical brain and the mind, and seeks a physical means to cure the insane. While his colleague believes that insanity is inherent in the mind, and is the price mankind pays for being human. Both these theories are reflected in this story of Hendricks, a man who suffered both trauma and love during World War II, and who is haunted by the death of his father in World War I. Overall, one concludes that Faulks sees in the human mind a source to understanding the tumultuous century he, and we, have lived through.

Another theme that weighs heavily in Faulks’ major works is the impact of two World Wars. It is again present here. Robert Hendricks’ father, we learn, died in the horrors of trench warfare in 1918, while the son was shaken by the battlefront deaths he encountered in France, in Tunisia, and in the climactic battle at Anzio during World War II. Indeed, Robert has come away with a version of today’s post traumatic stress syndrome. For, even as he makes a career studying the mind and treating other people, he cannot resolve his own mental issues. Which is primarily reflected in his problems connecting to others, particularly to women.

Gradually, we learn, however, that he did have one great love, a beautiful Italian woman named Luisa, whom he met while recuperating from a war wound in Italy; and he lived with her for a few blissful months. But while their love was not to be, not least due to his own reticence, yet his memory of her has meant a subsequent failure at making a connection with any other woman.

And so this novel is less about the horror of war, as powerful as the war scenes may be. It is about human connections, and the search to give meaning to one’s life. Which this one man is seeking, but also, one thinks, the author as well. In any event, Robert receives a letter from a dying Frenchman, Alexander Pereira, who served with his father in World War I and who invites Robert for a visit to southern France to tell him more about the fate of his father. Our hero accepts this invitation, but resists knowing about his father’s death. In some way, he seems to fear that by learning how his father died he may become more disillusioned about the world they have both lived in. The reader, on the other hand, continues on, hoping to understand Robert’s approach to life, as well as to see his own world with a broader perspective.

And so this work takes on another level, its true subject: the meaning of life in this 20th century. In addition to Robert’s wartime experiences and his attempt to establish his professional reputation after the war, we therefore follow him as he travels back and forth to southern France to learn about his father and the first World War, and perhaps more about himself. Meanwhile, he explores his own thesis in a book, The Chosen Few, his subject being those who are insane. He seems to say in this book that doctors often ignore the patient’s physical illness and push their own theory of how the mind works, even as, given the events of the 20th century, “humans had tried to remake the world in their own insane image.”

Robert’s book reveals to him that he yearns for the innocence of life that existed before World War I. And the reader understands that he is dissatisfied with his book because such innocence has vanished in the wake of two World Wars. And that his search for that innocence in love will never be fulfilled, for he missed his only chance at it—because of a blend of his own reticence and the trauma of losing so many friends in the bloody Italian campaign. Which, as noted, became the key to his life, sealing him off from making a connection with other human beings.

As these various narratives intermingle, the novel advances our understanding of Robert’s life and heightens our interest in learning whether or not he will finally understand the meaning of this century and the life he has lived. The novel’s conclusion is a rather negative one, for it describes a heartless modern world that leaves men with no route to understanding life.

Instead, Robert learns the truth of his father’s death; and that connection with his origins stands in for the connections he has been unable to make with others since the trauma of the war. It is a satisfying ending in literary terms, as it seems to say: like father, like son. Both are disillusioned. But it is not satisfying in human terms. For it leaves them both with a sense of emptiness as they face the reality they live in.

One guesses that this will be the last major novel that Faulks attempts. Unless, like his hero here, he thinks he has failed to capture the true meaning of life in the 20th century, and man’s role in its decline. For he sees it as a world that, despite the marvels of new knowledge and new technology, seems headed toward failure, a failure to find a world “where my heart used to beat.”

Perhaps the major miscalculation Faulks has made here is with his hero, Robert Hendricks. Yes, he has been traumatized by the horror of war, and is haunted by the lack of information about his father. But he is too passive, beginning with his one great love affair and continuing after the war as he loses any connection with his wartime buddies and is unable to make any emotional connection with the women he encounters. Moreover, he lives too much within his own mind, searching for an intellectual answer to the emptiness he feels around him. Yet it is an emptiness that he himself is the cause of. In sum, Faulks have given us too much of an intellectual hero, and not enough of an emotional one. (August, 2017)

Leaving Berlin, by Joseph Kanon

This is a marvelous espionage novel from 2015. It is set in Berlin in 1949 during the historic Air Lift, and it richly evokes that bombed city and its survivors, along with an atmosphere in which every encounter, with both friends and strangers, raises suspicion. The novel also works because of the moral issues that these characters face, as they struggle to survive in their world of conflicting political interests. Who is truly loyal to the Americans, to their German friends, to the East German regime, and to the Russians? It is not easy to answer when one’s own survival often depends on deceiving others.

The intrigue begins for the reader when the novel’s main character Alex Meier, a promising Jewish writer who once fled Hitler, goes back as a spy to Berlin, where he grew up. The CIA has agreed to erase his leftist ties in America if he pretends to support the new East German government. Just as Anna Seghers and Bertolt Brecht, who also appear in the novel, actually did. To earn his clean slate, Alex must befriend a former lover, Irene, who is sleeping with a high-ranking Russian, and from her learn more about Russian strategy for East Germany. Meanwhile, the East Germans, to whom he is pretending loyalty, also recruit Alex to befriend the same woman and inform them as well about Russian strategy. He thus becomes a new version of a double agent. And these conflicting objectives will soon lead him to facing such choices as silence, betrayal, and murder.

Indeed, our hero Alex learns quickly that the loyalties of those he meets are going be difficult to determine; and this begins with his first rendezvous, which results in a shootout, a death, and accusations of betrayal against a man he thought was a friendly American contact. From there, Alex begins his supposed mission at an East Berlin cultural center, where other Germans such as Brecht have returned to promote the culture of the new East German regime. But even there he discovers divided loyalties—among those who believe in themselves first (like Brecht) or in German culture, those supporting the new East German political state, and those mainly fearful of the Russian occupiers. And some of these empathize with Alex, but do not trust him. Thus, the motives of every character become more and more hidden and more and more diverse.

The end result is a plot line that twists and turns, as Alex tries to satisfy all his contacts, not betray himself, retain the love of Irene, and serve both the Germans’ and the Americans’ needs. It is an almost impossible task. It also continually raises moral issues about loyalty, both personal and political, and how much the end justifies the means. And so Alex is trapped amid moral and political quandaries. One of his major issues is trust. Who can he trust? For he is attempting to avoid suspicion for killing an important Russian. He is trying to help two friends flee to the West: Irene and her brother Erich, who has just escaped from a slave labor camp at a Soviet uranium mine. He is also seeking to thwart attempts to murder him. And he is trying to figure out who in the CIA has betrayed him.

This uncertainty of life in Berlin in 1949 is mirrored in both the rubble and the people. As Jake Kerridge in The Telegraph describes the Berlin atmosphere: “What makes this novel stand out is its portrayal of an East Berlin literally and psychologically gutted.”

In addition, Philip K. Jason in the Washington Independent Review of Books, extends this portrayal to the author’s style. He cites “carefully crafted dialogue [that] conveys enormous amounts of information, [which] feel incomplete. Do you ever walk into a situation in which everyone knows what’s going on except you? It’s something like that. Every word and sentence is crystal clear, yet the context and import remain undefined. This… is a stylistic device shaped to express uncertainty—what living in Berlin at this time feels like. Readers feel the overwhelming pressure of facts that don’t mesh.”

The result of this blend of moral complexity and political uncertainty is an action-filled finale in which an amateur spy like Alex unexpectedly becomes highly professional and creates an elaborate double-dealing plan that is difficult to follow, and yet manages to bring his situation and this novel to a conclusion. It also produces a series of surprises, primarily two unexpected reversals of loyalties, that are more to marvel at for their creativity than to accept for their believability.

Moreover, his plan also appears to enmesh Alex in a world he has been trying to escape, the implication being that his success in fulfilling his mission may well draw him more deeply into a world of espionage he wishes to avoid. This is symbolized by an American wife who has achieved the release of her East German husband by offering his captors what she considers tidbits of unimportant information. Which reverberates on a more significant level when Irene herself reveals she had offered what she considers minor information about Alex to her Russian lover.

This is one of Kanon’s best works. It is truly a thriller, not a literary work, but at its heart it explores moral and ethical issues that have always interested me. When, in other words, can you accept your hero killing another human being? Out of self-preservation, yes, but in cold blood? When can one lie, even to one’s friends, to serve a greater good, or in order to turn one’s enemies against each other? And when can love be used to serve political reasons?

Unlike recent Le Carre novels, the rationale here seems to be not to justify what is right but to address what works. What is practical, not what is moral or ethical. The result is a fast-moving work, which espionage novels should be, but not a novel with emotional depth. Its characters live too much in their political and intellectual worlds. They are too intent on self-preservation. What this novel does have, however, is moral richness, both from its setting and from the complex motivations and loyalties of its characters. (July, 2017)

A Delicate Truth, by John Le Carre

This is a beautifully constructed novel from 2013. It reflects once again, the author’s distrust of His Majesty’s government, especially its Foreign Office and its espionage and security services. In a way, this work’s conclusion offers a career bookend to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold of 50 years earlier.

Ironically, the structure I so admire here reflects a structure I usually dislike, a structure which bounces the reader among different time frames and different characters. Thus, this novel begins with a botched operation, called Operation Wildlife, on Gibraltar, in which British and American clandestine services join forces to kidnap an arms buyer for terrorists. My acceptance of this structure begins, I believe, with both the reader and the main characters being curious about who initiated this operation and why, what really happened, and how and why the botched outcome was concealed—and continues as Le Carre jumps back and forth and both the reader and the main characters learn the answers at the same time. In fact, it becomes even more of an obsession for those characters when they learn that an innocent woman and her child were killed in the operation, and their deaths were covered up.

The primary men involved are Toby Bell, an idealistic private secretary who suspects his foreign minister boss, Fergus Quinn, of something fishy; Kit Probyn, a middle-aged civil servant who has been rewarded with a knighthood for his role in the “successful” mission, but who Quinn chose to oversee the operation because Probyn seemed too innocent to understand what would be going on; and Jeb, the British commander at Gibraltar, who knows what really happened, knows about the two deaths the operation caused, and is haunted by guilt feelings.

Other participants are; Giles Oakley, Bell’s mentor who advises him not to speak truth to power; Jay Crispin, a shady British operative who was in charge of Wildlife; Fergus Quinn, Bell’s ambitious and secretive boss who sponsors the collaborative project with the Americans; Elliot, the operation’s field commander; and the mysterious Miss Maisie, an American whose wealth funds private defense contractors. With these last four, indeed, the espionage world, in Le Carre’s mind, has truly gone corporate.

The point of the novel is not Operation Wildlife itself; it is the investigation by three men, Kit Probyn, Toby Bell, and Jeb, of what actually happened on Gibraltar. It is their pursuit of the truth driving the story. For the cover-up, in Le Carre’s eyes, is the real crime here, more than the bungled operation itself. Indeed, this portrait of cynical governmental corruption before and after the fact also reflects the author’s response to the end of traditional espionage. He has turned his attention to exposing the corruption that has infected governmental and private agencies as they join forces to profit from combating new foreign adversaries

In the words of James Srodes, writing in The Washington Times, “The plotline of this story is as fresh as today’s headlines about overreaching spy agencies, the private contractors who serve those agencies, and what happens to whistleblowers who try to reveal just who it is behind the curtain twiddling the dials.” And as Sarah Churchwell sums up in the New Statesman, “Faced with a secret state relying on plausible deniability and the subcontracting of its dirty work, Toby and Kit must search for a way to hold power accountable.”

Some critics have disliked this novel. I would speculate it is because they enjoyed too much the former skullduggery and successes of the British espionage services, combined with Le Carre also exploring the moral quandaries raised by certain dark operations. I suspect that what those critics wanted/expected here was more suspenseful action in typical espionage fashion. But the whole point here is the cover-up—and the step-by-step process by which it is exposed. And, in fact, there are still neat moments of suspense at the climax, when Bell does attempt to speak truth to power.

No, this novel belongs to a type that, as Mark Lawson explains in the Guardian, “no other writer has charted—pitilessly for politicians but thrillingly for readers—the public and secret histories of his times, from the second world war to the ‘war on terror.’” In other words, Le Carre is interested in the truth of war, especially when it is a “delicate truth,” because certain actions raise questions no one in power wishes to answer.

This issue is also what Olen Steinhauer raises in the Times Book Review, that by the end of this novel “either you share [Le Carre’s] anger at the injustices between its covers, or you don’t.” And if you don’t, “you’re one of Smiley’s” people, one who accepts the sacrifice of innocents in hot or cold wars. Whereas, this post cold-war era offers another perspective. And Le Carre has switched his concern here to considering the value of the innocents.

Le Carre has published this work at the age of 81. One wonders how many such works he has left in him. I would hope the answer is many. He has written that he does not want to end his career as did Graham Greene, writing short, less consequential work. In this novel, the author shows he still has control of both story and structure. What he does not retain, however, is a sense of the moral quandary that lied behind certain espionage successes of a generation ago. That era is long gone, and Le Carre himself has changed with it. He has become more opinionated, and has recognized that the secret world he once belonged to has become more commercial, more selfish, and more corrupt.

Perhaps a long career of writing about the shadows in the world of espionage, as well as long years thinking about how the world, how humanity, operates, has started Le Carre thinking more deeply about the exercise of power, the foibles of human nature, and the accountability that is so often absent. And at the end of his career he is recognizing that the thinking of his former world of shadows no longer applies. That humans are no longer living up to that world of idealism that we have long purported to believe in. And he now wishes to stress, at the end of his own life, how we humans actually operate today, how we have turned inward, toward valuing and defending means rather than ends. (July, 2017)

The Crimson Petal and the White, by Michael Faber

This 2002 work is a rich and brazen recreation of a novel of the 19th century. It begins beautifully, with the author addressing the reader and guiding him through the introduction of the main characters. Unfortunately, they are not sympathetic characters, and as the work progresses one becomes less interested in their individual fates, and more in the details of the world the author has created and the adventures his characters have. The focus is on the Rackham family, especially, but also their friends and servants, and other members of society. In sum, the reader explores a distant world that offers rich and poor both permissions and limitations.

The main characters are Sugar, an unattractively thin but smart prostitute; William Rackham, the dissolute son of a wealthy manufacturer, who is fascinated by her; Agnes, William’s sickly wife; Sophie, William’s young and innocent child; and Henry Rackham, William’s brother, a dedicated but unworldly parson. The problem for me is that the two main characters, Sugar and William, are both selfish, using each other for their own pleasure, and intent on advancing their status in society. As a result, it was impossible for me to identify with them, even though I was caught up by their efforts to take advantage of personal, business, and social relationships.

The author sustains our interest in this long novel by creating provocative adventures that explore the complexity of Victorian society. He also understands the literary value of a character reversal, and the interest it creates. In Sugar’s case, she gradually loses a hatred of men that has been fostered by her service as a prostitute. Instead, she absorbs an awareness of love, first through her relationship with William, but even more through serving as governess and teacher of his daughter Sophie. Indeed, at the end she seems dedicated more to the life of Sophie than to her own life.

Further richness is added when this intelligent woman abandons a cruel novel about prostitution, and becomes enthralled by a diary and journal that Agnes has been keeping. Sugar devours it to learn about both the Agnes of whom she is jealous and the details of Agnes’ relationship with her husband.

As a sidelight, one of the primary characteristics of Agnes is that she was raised a Catholic and wishes to return to that faith. Her efforts are presented sympathetically, but one speculates that her religion is introduced primarily to express her long repression of herself as a sexual being.

William’s reversal, on the other hand, represents a change from an undisciplined, pleasure-seeking dandy to being the effective manager of his father’s perfume business—albeit that he also relies at times on the sage advice of Sugar. Indeed, he seems to be putty in her hands—until nature intervenes, and another reversal occurs.

The story itself can be briefly told. Sugar begins as a successful prostitute with higher ambitions. She is drafting a novel in which she gets revenge on her clients by killing them; meanwhile, she suffers from a skin disease that seems to symbolize the corruption within her. William, on the other hand, endures life with half-mad Agnes, a child wife who understands neither her own body nor the functioning of sex; and so he seeks release with Sugar, but also, unexpectedly, finds companionship with her. He first puts her up in a private hide-away, and then brings her into his home as a governess for daughter Sophie. Whereupon, their relationship fluctuates back and forth on a physical, psychological, and emotional pendulum. But nothing significant happens until Sugar discovers herself to be pregnant.

Meanwhile, peripheral characters, such as brother Henry and his girl friend Emmeline Fox, who works to help prostitutes, move in and out of their lives, as do William’s servants and his dissolute friends Bodley and Ashwell.

And yet, despite all the intriguing adventures and literary craftsmanship, after taking us through 900 pages of a family saga that resembles a 19th century soap opera, the author fails to bring his novel to a conclusive ending. This is perhaps a very 21st century approach (as is the often graphic references to Victorian sex), but it is far from the 19th century literature he is recreating. In other words, Faber has decided, in the modern spirit, that it is unnecessary to convey the fate of his major characters. This covers Sugar, Sophie, Agnes, William, and Henry. And so, despite the richness of the telling, along with my inability to identify with these characters, I sense a hollowness at the core of this novel.

Charles Taylor has an interesting take in Salon on the reason for this hollowness. He writes that Faber’s opening pages, which we both admire, and his later addressing of the reader, keep those readers at a distance from his characters, keep them at arm’s length as observers, and prevent them from getting inside the skin of his characters. And, thus, by his own intrusions, Faber reminds us that he is controlling the actions of these characters rather than it being they who are making their own decisions.

Taylor sums up his review by saying Faber’s novel is “damnably irritating” but “never less than compelling.” That it has “divided my sympathies,” engaging him on a narrative level even as “the story does not conclude but simply stops.” He calls the novel “a compelling perversity: a long, detailed Victorian novel from someone who doesn’t appear to like Victorian novels.”

Like Taylor, I, too, was caught up by the characters’ adventures, impressed by the Victorian detail, felt myself involved in its world, and yet was frustrated by the distancing. Faber seems, in retrospect, to be an author who is too ambitious, too risk-taking for his own good. And yet that may well be why he is held in such high regard by many critics. All in all, I am in favor of risk-taking, but more when it expands the reader’s vision, and less when, as here, it limits the reader’s vision. Or when, as here, the author’s objective overrides the story’s objective. (July, 2017)

The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling)

Rowling is still a fine writer, but, with this first attempt, she has not yet grasped the forward-moving structure so necessary to a mystery novel. She begins beautifully, as supermodel Lulu Landry falls from a balcony during a snowstorm, and the media, the curious, and paparazzi flock to the scene. Galbraith also introduces the interesting detective, Comoran Strike and his assistant, Robin Ellacott, who have a complicated relationship. Finally, the author (whom I will now refer to as a “he.”) astutely captures the psychology of many of the characters.

The first problem is that Strike’s pursuit of how and why the girl fell involves a lot of sleuthing in the form of interviews and exchanges of information; but there is little action. And as this stretches out to more than 450 total pages, the lack of forward movement is telling. One knows that the author is setting up the solution step by step, but so many people are involved, and there are so many interlocking relationships, that the reader finds it difficult to fit the pieces together and thus see where the story is headed.

The title comes from a Christina Rossetti poem, which asks why one was born when the snow is falling, in winter, rather than when the cuckoo is calling, that is, in summer. And the victim, the beautiful supermodel, does die to begin the novel because she is in the wrong place at the wrong time. She is also called the Cuckoo because she flits around town, catching everyone’s eye with her beauty.

But she is half black, making her an exotic beauty, and is adopted, which introduces the many mixed relationships, including love affairs, that complicate the story. Her tale begins when her brother John Bristow, not adopted, hires Strike to prove Lulu’s death was not a suicide, as the police proclaim, but was murder. Events then involve the entire Bristow family, including her nasty uncle Tony and her adoptive mother Yvette Bristow. It will also involve, as Michiko Kakutani writes in The New York Times, “a posh world of supermodels, rock stars, movie producers, and social-climbing wives.”

More specifically, it includes a weird clothes designer, Guy Some; Lulu’s boyfriend, Evan Duffield; her rehab girlfriend, Rochelle; her model friend, Ciara Porter; her birth mother Marlene Higson; the rapper Deeby Macc; and movie producer Freddie Bestigui and his estranged his wife Tansy. Plus many others. But who has played a significant role and who a minor role in Lulu’s death? This is difficult to determine as we follow Strike in his pursuit of what Lulu did the last two days of her life, and particularly what happened around her in those final moments when she plummeted from the balcony of her luxury apartment building. Strike’s 400 pages of conversation with those who knew her last days and witnessed those final moments becomes too detail oriented to move the story ahead. Nor do the various incidents seem to have any connection. Whereas, if the author had been wiling to suggest some of those connections, perhaps the reader might have been enticed to commit himself deeper to the story.

What is more interesting than the mystery, however, is the relationship between Strike and his secretary/assistant Robin. In fact, my interest in that relationship is similar to how I reacted in Galbrath’s follow-up novel, which I had read earlier. The mystery in both cases takes second fiddle. In the meantime, in this first novel, because he was an illegitimate baby himself, Strike relates to Lulu; and because he also has known the Barstow family before, he commits himself to resolving Lulu’s untimely fate.

Galbraith creates an interesting background for Strike. He has lost part of a leg in Afghanistan and is continually troubled by the prosthesis he wears. He is also near broke and has just separated from his dominating and long-time girl friend, Charlotte. Whereas, Robin, the temp he can barely afford, is already engaged to Matthew. On the other hand, she is drawn to the free-thinking Strike almost against her will. She is also fascinated by the detective profession itself, and often takes the initiative to help Strike find an answer to specific questions. One senses they will make an ideal team in future cases.

The story does falter in its conclusion, for it depends on a long, drawn-out explanation by Strike that is often typical of an authors’ early effort at a crime story. That is, the explanation of exactly how Lulu died has too many pieces to tie together, and is thus too drawn out to be interesting. The identity of the villain is also intended, I think, to offer a surprise; but the identity here is less surprising, since it is of one who is often found in detective novels. There is, however, one real surprise within that identification—being about another crime that personally affected Strike.

As I said, this is the second Galbraith novel I have read, and the fact that I have found the relationship between Strike and Robin again more interesting than the crime itself, well, this is not good news for the author. But I have the hope that Galbraith will improve, because he does have interesting insights about all of the characters, even the most minor. He just has to develop a more interesting but less complex case, and more dramatic events (or dramatic reversals) leading to an exciting conclusion. A lower page count in future works might be a key in determining if the author has succeeded in doing so. (June, 2017)

Dreamcatcher, by Stephen King

This is the first fiction that King wrote after his drive-by accident that left him severely injured and in considerable pain. Unfortunately, it does not reflect the movement away from horror that I have detected in later novels written after the accident. Indeed, one wonders how much the pain he was enduring at the time prompted him to emphasize it here, especially the damaged hip suffered by Jonesy, one of his characters.

King’s begins this 2001 novel with news reports about flying saucers. Then he introduces his story. It is about four men who make a hunting trip to Maine each fall. And what happens to them when they are confronted by a stranger, a fellow hunter named Richard McCarthy, who has been infected by a mysterious phenomena. The phenomena turns out to be an alien with no good intentions, for aliens have landed on these forest hunting grounds in Maine, and they need to take over human bodies in order to survive.

The four men whose lives we follow are Beaver, a carpenter; Jonesy, a university professor; Henry, a depressed psychiatrist; and Pete, an alcoholic car salesman. They bonded as boys, and then more deeply when they protected Duddits, a smart, physically retarded boy who was constantly bullied at school. And these friends develop a kind of telepathic connection as a result, a precursor to telepathic skills that the aliens would bring. Indeed, this ability helps the five to collaborate here when they are faced with danger.

The core of this novel is the confrontations with evil that these five adults will have, confrontations involving other human beings as well as with those aliens. One also senses early on that King is a God-like author, and that not all of his heroes will survive. But which ones, that is the question.

The novel starts very slowly for me. There is too much of the boys’ past, how they make their connection with Duddits, and too much detail about the hunting trip that touches off their adventure. That is, how they get separated, how they encounter fear, and how the alien monsters enter their life. This is a normal approach by King, as he builds his story naturalistically, in order to get the reader to identify with his characters. But there is too much here. There is also too much farting, in which gestating alien monsters expel a terrible smell as they grow inside human bodies. This is a juvenile King at his mischievous worst. Indeed, he seems to take delight in describing these monsters and how they arrive on the scene—as if he is trying to revert to the scenes of horror that had made his work so popular before his accident.

Interestingly, the alien invasion is revealed to offer no immediate threat to all mankind, since these creatures cannot survive in the cold Maine air. Is this a cop out? To enable King to focus on his story in the second half of the book? On the gestating monsters and on Mr. Gray, who does offer a threat to some of our five friends. As well as to a part of New England, with his dastardly plot to poison the water supply.

And so…we have the army to the rescue! Ah, no, not quite. For King introduces the bloodthirsty Kurtz, who is intent on making a name for himself by not only killing all the aliens but also his own soldiers who disagree with him. And with Kurtz (note the name), the author introduces a familiar King theme, a distrust of government methods to protect its citizens.

But now, King puts his imagination to work, and creates a fascinating novel on two levels. The first step becomes confusing at times, for the aliens can read the minds of those they infect, which, in turn, enables the humans to also read their minds. Moreover, such humans can sense their own bodies being acted upon by aliens. Such as Mr. Gray, who inhabits Jonesy’s body. But this also means that Jonesy can read Mr. Gray’s mind. And plot against him. And, given all this reading of minds…well, this brings confusion at times, since certain characters are living on two levels, and King has to distinguish, for example, between whether Jonesy is doing certain things with his body or Mr. Gray is.

The title, Dreamcatcher, adds a vague explanation of this power of the five heroes to communicate with one another since their youthful protection of Duddits. It is like a fishnet of string, a charm from Indian lore that hangs from ceilings to guide and protect humans, and to ward off nightmares. For example, the horrors of this novel.

The second imaginative step is the chase scene that fills the final third of the book. In the lead car is Mr. Gray, in the body of Jonesy, racing with a dog about to give birth to one of the monsters. They are racing down the Maine coast to a Massachusetts reservoir to poison the waters of southern New England. Behind them is a second car with a soldier, Owen, who wishes to atone for the violence he committed in the army’s battle with the aliens and whom Kurtz believes has betrayed him. With Owen are Henry, the intellectual, and Duddits, whose communication abilities seems to hold the key to their survival. They want to prevent the poisoning of the water supply. And behind them in a third vehicle is Kurtz, who is determined to kill Owen for disobeying him, and two soldiers, Fredericks, who is driving, and the hapless Perlmutter, who is belching and farting, and about to “give birth” to another monster.

The reader races with King toward the conclusion, to the final confrontation of the people in the three cars. One expects a positive ending, but how it will work out keeps one in suspense. And then one is rewarded with the expected confrontation, the expected violence.

But there is an Epilogue. Which I usually don’t prefer. However, King becomes provocative here. He suggests that Jonesy’s liking of horror movies and books left him susceptible to Mr. Gray taking over his mind. Because he believed in the possibility of beings like Mr. Gray. And what does that say about all of King’s readers liking such tales as this?

Also, one more thing: King introduces God as a potential being that oversees mankind’s complex world and complex connections. “Who sings the lullaby,” Jonesy asks, “helps us go to sleep when we’re sad and scared?” And Henry answers: “Oh, God still does that.” But then kicks himself. He will not commit to God’s existence, no, but the possibility of Him remains. Perhaps as a kind of dreamcatcher? (June, 2017)