Nemesis, by Jo Nesbo

The popularity of this Norwegian mystery writer has been growing, and I was curious to learn what it was all about. I can now understand that popularity, although this early 2002 work did not impress me that much with its story—a prime reason being that the complicated events were difficult to follow. Why was this? One reason is that the characters were not clearly delineated, neither the policemen nor the suspects, villains, and victims. Nor did their interactions help distinguish themselves from one other. But what did impress me was the texture of the writing, the setting of the scenes, and the constant action moving ahead.

The novel begins as a story of two crimes, that of a bank robbery and a murder and that of a death that suggests suicide but may be murder. The bank robbery that opens the book results in the death of a woman teller, and the suspicion that the killer and the victim knew each other. Meanwhile, a young woman is found shot to death, with a gun in the wrong hand. She is a former girlfriend of Nesbo’s series detective, Harry Hole. He had spent the previous night with her but cannot remember what happened.

The result is a series of complicated developments that are difficult to follow, not least because the author keeps shifting his focus: from one crime to the other and from one suspicious activity to another. But also, as I said, because the characters serve more the functions of the plot than come alive on the page. And their shifting motivations are complicated as well. They involve love affairs, jealousy, rage, revenge, the rivalry of brothers, and gypsy culture.

We follow the story mainly through Harry Hole’s efforts to clear himself from suspicion of murder. He duels with a fellow cop who wants to pin the murder on him, negotiates with a gypsy prisoner to find the girl’s actual killer, and receives teasing emails from the girl’s presumed murderer, who intensifies his own sense of guilt. The result is a complexity that keeps the reader off-balance, which promotes the book’s intrigue but can be confusing, as Harry shifts from one concern to another, and from one crime to another.

For a long while, it is not clear which crime is intended to be dominant. The bank robbery and murder that begins the tale, or the girl’s murder that implicates Harry. More time is spent with the latter, which hits closer to Harry’s home, but the former has international implications that prompt a visit to Brazil. While the solutions never come together, their themes, their motivations, do in many ways. There is brotherly conflict, there is betrayal in love, and there is authorial misdirection. Indeed, the solution to the girl’s death, while intended as a big surprise, is for me too much of a twist that betrays the author’s hand. I was unprepared, and therefore somewhat reluctant to accept it.

As Marilyn Stasio writes in the Times: “Nesbo falls back on coincidence and some other questionable devices. The problem isn’t that he fails to tie up all his story lines, it’s that he does it so carefully and neatly that the plot machinery is revealed for what it is— machinery.” Perhaps the novel’s length of around 500 pages has also been necessary to develop this complicated machinery. And so winding it down somewhat succinctly at the end lends a sense of arbitrariness.

Nemesis is the Greek god of justice and revenge. Thus, the title, for each major death is motivated by revenge. But one senses the author has backed into this theme, or at least the title. As if to make the execution fit the crime. But while these solutions reflect a psychological depth, they do not rise out of character depth. They seem to have been pasted in by the author to fit the facts.

And yet, there is enough depth here, enough intriguing plotting, enough Norwegian atmosphere, enough interesting series characters to prompt interest in more of Nesbo. As a series hero, Harry Hole offers distinct, if familiar, possibilities. He is moody, rebellious and hot-headed, tends to drink heavily, and likes to act alone; but he is also one whom other policemen respect, and whose superiors also accept, because of his incisive detective skills.

Among the interesting police characters are Beate Lonn, a new female recruit who seems innocent in the ways of the world, but who can remember faces and whose interaction with Harry offers possibilities; and Inspector Waaler, who dislikes Harry, and is out to pin a murder on him. The other police officials, however, such as Halvorson, Moller, Ivarsson, and Weber are mainly supernumeries who serve a purpose rather than exist as real characters. As is psychologist Stale Aune, whose discussions with Harry serve primarily to give psychological depth and psychological possibilities to the actions of the more suspicious characters.

Yes, I will read more of Nesbo. But I would hope he explores more deeply Harry’s relationships with his fellow policemen. That he avoids fictional complexity in favor of psychological or political complexity. And that he sharpens his focus by digging into the heart of a single criminal activity. Whereupon, the Oslo setting and/or the darker Norwegian atmosphere and culture will also become a plus. (November, 2016)

The Whites, by Harry Brandt (Richard Price)

This multi-level mystery novel from 2015 is true literature in every sense. It begins as a police procedural that establishes the bono fides of Billy Graves, a side-tracked police sergeant now assigned to the Night Watch in Manhattan. It is also a portrait of a once-heralded police team, the Wild Geese, whose members still love and support each other, even after some have left the force.

Interwoven also is the story of Milton Ramos, a renegade cop out to extract revenge for the personal injustices which life has dealt him. The ending, moreover, relies on a solution that is a classic of the mystery genre, and then humanizes that solution. And, finally, helping this work to a truly literary level is the moral issue raised by that solution in the minds and souls of characters whom both we as readers and Billy himself have become comfortable with.

The novel works on all levels. We are especially close to Billy and his wife Carmen, both of whom have endured tragedy in their past. They both love each other and are protective of each other. And Billy also remains especially close to four former policemen who were members of the Wild Geese. There is Pavlicek, now a real estate baron; Redman, now a funeral director; Whelan, now a building superintendent; and Yasmeen, now a campus security chief. Each will play a key role in this novel, as well as exemplify the ties of police brotherhood.

The title, The Whites, refers to the criminals the police have pursued obsessively but have failed to catch, not unlike the white whale that Ahab pursued. It is an ironic designation in terms of color (not race), but it also reflects the complexity of police duty and the frequent moral issues that are raised. The basic moral issue raised here is: should the guilty be punished? But also, should the past be forgotten? And: what is the nature of true justice, and who has the right to deliver that justice? It is a moral issue that is examined in all great literature, and here Price as Brandt is reaching for those heights—and achieving them.

But morality does not exist in a vacuum. It exists in the actions of human beings; and these human beings, in literature, need to exist in a specific world. In this case it is the island of Manhattan, yes, but it is also Manhattan at night, and even more significant it is the felony crime scene in Manhattan at night and the human beings responsible for catching the criminals in the name of justice. This is why the policemen are the prime movers of this novel, and why Price as Brandt has made such an effort to show us the cruelty that they confront, the frustration they often feel, and the camaraderie that keeps them going.

This camaraderie, indeed, is a key element of this novel, both for the resulting interaction it causes and for the humanization it brings to men whose blue uniform often makes all of them seem alike. As Kakutani writes in the Times: [Brandt’s] “ability to map his characters’ inner lives—all the dreams and memories and wounds that make them tick—results in people who become as vivid to us as real-life relatives or friends.”

And Billy Graves is the first to have any vulnerabilities. His police career was detoured before the start of this novel, when a bullet he fired at a criminal hit an innocent boy, and he became fodder for the tabloid press. This resulted in initial assignments to dead-end posts; but he has finally earned recognition, and been placed in charge of the Night Watch. However, his private life is also in travail, because his first wife had abandoned him after the shooting scandal and left him with two young sons. Now, he is married to Carmen, a nurse and a temperamental woman whom he loves but does not always understand.

And while we realize that Billy is a good man at heart, we begin reading about another cop, Milton Ramos, who also lost a wife and is left with a young daughter. But he reacts to his unfortunate situation very differently from how Billy does, and seeks revenge on someone for some unknown reason. And we sense he will confront Billy at the novel’s climax. As we follow Billy through his routine investigations, however, and watch as a new and violent crime confronts him with memories of his past, with his own white—and also reunites him with his colleagues of the past—this building confrontation with Ramos moves from the background to the foreground, drawing the reader into this novel even more, although we do not know what will prompt the climactic confrontation.

What is not clear to me is why Price chose a pseudonym for this novel. Is it to be part of a series? Is it the police aspect that makes it different from his other works? He dedicates it, in part, to a Carl Brandt. Is that a family member or a friend, perhaps a policeman, whom he wishes to recognize? Perhaps the most reasonable difference to be found in this novel is that it does not focus on a specific location in sociological terms, as in his previous novels, but rather on individuals in psychological terms. But why would this shift prompt him to use a pen name? In any event, the reason does not really matter.

This reader will continue to pursue the work of Richard Price. While he has his dedicated followers, his work has thus fear not entered the contemporary literary canon. Perhaps because of his subject matter, the underside, the criminal side, of daily life. But the underdogs of his novels—victims, pursuers, and perpetrators—are worthy subjects that we in our comfortable reading chairs tend to forget. And Price stands out because he portrays these people, even the most villainous, like Ramos here, as human beings. And he helps us realize that there are often reasons why they are what they are. (March, 2016)

Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene

This 1938 work is generally recognized as Greene’s first serious novel. And justifiably so, I will now agree. It had not impressed me, however, when I first read it perhaps sixty years ago.

And now I can see why.

Because this is not written in the beautiful, rich style of the serious novels that followed. It features a very gritty style, with metaphors that emphasize the ugliness of nature and the world. But it is nevertheless a true Greene work, as well as his first successful one. Because it is about evil. And about love. And about the two in conflict, the boy Pinkie being evil and the girl Rose not seeing the evil because she is in love.

It is a theme that will become richer, and more subtle, in subsequent Greene novels. It is a theme that naturally rises out of the newly acquired Catholicism of the author as well as the Catholicism of these two characters he has created. But it is not a visible theme until the second half, when Rose’s love blinds her. Indeed, Norman Sherry writes in his biography of Greene that the author had intended that this book to be a thriller, but as he passed the 30,000-word mark, he saw the possibilities in writing about more than a murdering punk; it could also be about a punk who personifies evil.

The story until then revolves around two murders initiated by an ambitious Pinkie. He seeks, through the power of his gang, revenge on a man who has betrayed his leader, who was also a father figure; but he also plots to avoid being blamed for the first murder. Greene explores the Brighton underworld and Pinkie’s efforts to survive it for a greater part of the novel, an approach which frankly turned me off in my first reading long ago. But this time I found it provocative because it was unclear how deep the evil went, and I was curious about where this novel was going.

Where he was going was Pinkie’s conviction that Rose could be a witness against him for the murder that opens the novel. He then pursues her, thinking that if he marries her she cannot, by law, testify against him. And Rose, being both unattractive and untutored in the wiles of men, succumbs to his attention, and then falls in love with him. What makes this relationship even more fascinating is that Pinkie is physically repelled by her, as well as by all women. For he has not only never experienced women, being a virgin and terrified by the idea, but also appears to be a latent homosexual. Or, perhaps, not even latent in Greene’s mind.

And so we have another example of Greene’s fascination with characters torn by internal conflict. Pinkie hates physical contact with women, but must seduce Rose. And Rose wants to live with Pinkie, but soon is convinced she must die with him. Indeed, the climactic moment when Pinkie plots with her to commit a suicide pact together—and we know he does not intend to fulfill his side of the bargain—is the most intense and most accomplished scene in the book.

The resolution of that scene, however, is not convincing, for Greene has taken the easy way out. He has three characters arrive fortuitously on the scene, and interrupt Pinkie’s plans. The most important of the three is Ida, whom we have been following at intervals throughout the novel. She was with the initial murder victim at the start of the novel, and seems to feel some responsibility for letting it happen. She is also, in contrast to the lovers, a very secular person, a believer in Right vs., Wrong, rather than, like the Catholic lovers, in Good vs. Evil. In any event, she is intent on seeing that justice is done and that Rose is saved. Indeed, she has been in pursuit of Pinkie for the second half of the novel. Which does lead to her presence in the climactic scene, when she arrives with a little help from the author.

The Raven of This Gun for Hire and Pinkie here are blood brothers. Each personifies evil, and each is involved with a girl who loves them and prefers to see the goodness inside them. J. M. Coetzee also points out that a death in This Gun prompts the killing that Pinkie commits as revenge at the opening of this novel.

One does ask how Greene could be so effective in portraying these characters on the underside of life. Granted, he wished to explore the nature of evil, and evil flourishes most on that underside. Sherry’s biography clearly shows how Greene researched the Brighton scene, using the race course, the hotels and bars, even the Kolley Kibber character who leaves cards all over Brighton and offers a prize to whomever first identifies him. He also cites actress Mae West, whom Greene recently reviewed, as a model for the spirited, blowsy Ida. As for his knowledge of the evil in these underground characters, Sherry says Greene “was tapping his own fundamental view of mankind and religious belief. What he is demonstrating in the novel is the limitations of religious belief which do not accept the existence of innate evil.”

The title, Brighton Rock, is never explained within the novel. It is a type of hard candy, and critics have assumed that the first murder was committed by stuffing the candy down the victim’s throat. This would make sense, and the title also reflects the hard life for these characters in Brighton. But Greene never makes clear why he chose it, as he chose his other titles.

It seems clear that Brighton Rock marked the turning point in Greene’s literary career. He realized that his new Catholic faith offered the entre with which to explore the contradictions in life between evil and sin on one hand, and human innocence and love on the other. And for literary purposes, this was most present in the sexual desire that drove his own life—desire as an expression of pleasure and also as an expression of love.

This is an ugly work on the surface, in its concentration on evil, in its unsympathetic characters, and in the hard metaphors of its style. But it offers a key to understanding the works to come, especially Power, Affair, and the plays. This is where the external world is replaced by the internal world—and by sin, redemption, and pity. It is where Greene finds his true subject: the contradictions within the human mind and the human soul. (February, 2016)

Three novels by Ellery Queen

My favorite author as a teenager was Ellery Queen, a pseudonym for two cousins, Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee. What appealed to me was the blend of their literate style and the intricate crime puzzles they created. I was particularly fascinated by the challenge they offered each reader in their early novels. For just before their detective solved the crime, the authors stopped the story and told the reader that he or she now had all the facts that Ellery had, and challenged the reader to solve the crime before reading on. This appealed to an adolescent mind just encountering the challenge of the adult world.

Since I had read most of the Queen mysteries before making my literary comments, I began wondering how I would evaluate Queen’s works today, more than seventy years later. Would they justify my adolescent interest? Or would they expose the shallowness of that early focus? So I decided to read one early work, which featured the reader challenge, one later work that developed the humanity of the chief characters, and a final work that, as I recall, showed author Queen at the height of his literary powers.

            My three comments follow.

 

The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932)

As a literate description of a wake and funeral open this mystery, followed by the discovery of a murder victim, I realized I was evaluating this work with an eye on the past as well as on my reaction today. That is, I was analyzing what was there that made me love Ellery Queen so much in the past. Now that I know that when Dannay and Lee created their works, that one was strong on the literary side and one strong on the puzzle side, I can separate those aspects and realize that it was the puzzle side that originally intrigued me.

In the opening third of this work, the focus is on Ellery puzzling out how a dead body could have been placed in a coffin. It is a variation on the locked-room mystery. And he puzzles out what did not happen to find his way to what did happen. It is still today an intriguing process that Ellery goes through, but also a very self-aware one. In addition, the authors stress that this is Ellery’s first case chronologically, that he is still wet behind the ears, and this is why in the investigation he takes a subsidiary role to his father, Inspector Queen.

Written in the early 1930s, the work is set in the 20s, and its structure reflects its era of detective fiction. The main characters belong to a central household, in this case an East Side, Manhattan mansion. Also, the characters are portrayed more in their relationship to the victim or the crime, than in their relationships with one another. And, like the detectives of the era, they have their own idiosyncrasies. In this case, Inspector Queen has his snuff box, while Ellery has both his pince nez and an obnoxious tendency to quote classic literature as he summarizes or comments on the latest scene.

In the center of this work, Ellery begins coming up with potential solutions, but in each case a new fact negates his solution. Each new development is logical, but for me each also reflects an intrusion by the author to complicate the situation. What is interesting is Ellery’s approach to these solutions. He reaches them by a process of elimination, by explaining what could not have happened, how a particular person could not have done such and such. Until, finally, he is left with one conclusion, that only this could have happened and only this person could have done it. It calls for a painstaking explanation in each case, but what Ellery calls his logical approach is intellectually convincing.

An art context helps to make interesting the pursuit of the villain, and adds cultural seriousness to the story. The key to the villain’s motivation is a painting by Leonardo. Parallel to the search for the villain is the search for the painting. Where is it? Is it real or a copy? Why is it in New York?? Who is its legitimate owner? Will it be returned to London?

During this work, Ellery comes up with four different solutions, each more complicated that the preceding one. One solution is even a false one intended to trap the true killer. And the final solution, in fact, becomes so complicated that the final identification of the killer is a complete surprise. It is truly the least expected person. And yet, also, it is so surprising that, despite all the logic, it carries an air of being contrived by the author rather than by the actual circumstances.

Concerning the challenge to the reader, it is true that the reader has all the facts. But a number of such facts are slipped in so casually that the reader does not make anything of them at the time. So, yes, the authors are strictly fair, but they are also too clever by half. No one can be expected to pick up such clues when they appear, although one can recall many of them in retrospect. Such challenges, I think, were made simply to separate Queen’s mysteries from his competitors.’ And they certainly were the element that intrigued me.

This has been an exercise in logic more than an adventure in crime, more about the actions of its characters than the characters themselves. But the writing is in keeping with the genre of those times. And the emphasis on logic not only separated it from other detective stories of that era but also appealed to my interests of that time. Which was that of a youth unaware of the emotional connections among people but becoming aware of his own intellect and the means it offered to understand more about people and about life. (September, 2015)

Halfway House (1936)

This is much better, a far richer mystery novel. Because the characters are real. Because their relationships are real. Ellery is merely an observer, remaining in the background until the dénouement.

Ellery is a friend of Bill Angell, whom he meets casually during a stop in Trenton, New Jersey. A murder immediately occurs, that of Joe Wilson, Bill’s brother-in-law. The uniqueness of the story is that Joe is really Joseph Gimball of a wealthy New York family and he has been living a double life with his middle-class wife Lucy in Philadelphia. The title of the work comes from his regularly changing his identity at an abandoned shack in Trenton about halfway between New York and Philadelphia, and in this shack he is killed.

One wonders, in fact, if Queen changed his title format with this volume—from the more austerely titled Egyptian, Greek, and Spanish, etc. mysteries to Halfway House—because he decided to change his approach to writing mysteries. That he wanted to make them closer to true novels by emphasizing character and relationships, which in turn opened the door to a more literary treatment.

And I believe the naturalness, the believability, of this tale stems from this more novelistic approach. For it is not Ellery’s role here that intrigues us, nor his relationship with Bill, which keeps him on the scene. What draws the interest of the reader is the tensions between the Wilson and Gimball families, and, even more, within the Gimball family in New York. From beautiful daughter Andrea Gimball, who likes Bill and whose relationship warms up and humanizes this mystery, to her mother Jessica, to her fiancé Jones, to the family lawyer Senator Frueh, to family friend and advisor Grosvenor Finch. These people are continually discussing and debating their proper response to the revelation of Joe Wilson/Joe Gimbell’s double life and murder.

Interest is also enhanced by the seventy-page description of a trial in the center of the book. It is the trial of Lucy Wilson for the murder of her husband Joe. The police theory is that she was angry at the deception of her husband, but the reader suspects, despite incriminating evidence, that she is not guilty. What is impressive, however, is that the trial is so brilliantly and suspensefully presented—with both the prosecutor Pollinger and Bill, who is defending his sister, making telling legal points in both presenting evidence and cross-examining witnesses. Seldom have I come across a trial scene that presented both sides so objectively and so effectively, with the outcome constantly in doubt.

Ellery remains basically a witness to events until the solution to the murder is revealed. He is also more self-aware of his celebrity, and has thankfully toned down his quotations from the literary classics. What is remarkable, however, is that when he finally stands front and center, when he begins his explanation of the crime and it stretches out to more than forty pages, I remained continually engrossed. For rarely does one come across such a fascinating and dramatic dénouement, one so different from the dry, long-winded explanations that top off many a detective story.

The dénouement is basically in two parts, first a description of the crime itself, related at the actual crime scene with all the suspects present; and then a presentation to the judge and prosecutor at Lucy’s trial, describing the characteristics of the killer, showing that it is not Lucy but another who fits all of Ellery’s requirements to be the killer. And Ellery does this without revealing the actual identity of the killer until the absolute end, while the reader keeps shifting his choice back and forth among the suspects. It is a marvelous feat of writing, sustaining the drama to the end.

As for Ellery’s solution to the crime, he again challenges the reader before revealing the criminal’s identity. And the key discovery comes from six match stubs found at the murder scene, a discovery he highlights but which appears to mean nothing until he logically explains their significance. Is it an irony or a coincidence, by the way, that it is pipe-smoking Ellery who reaches this logical conclusion? Then, as in earlier works, the detective’s logic is confirmed by apparently innocuous seeds of evidence that Queen, as the author, has carefully planted. Which is not a criticism, merely an observation.

I do have one criticism, however. I cannot find, through rereading, how the killer knew the victim was going to the Halfway House on that particular evening. Plus that the victim was going there to reveal his double identity. For such knowledge was needed in advance to enable the killer to set up the patsy for the crime. Did the telegrams come to light, for example? Otherwise, why would the murderer have been there exactly then? In addition, the killer’s motive is generally stated, as revenge for Joe’s betrayal of the New York wife, but it does not seem to be a driving force in the killer’s life.

These would seem to be negatives that require an editorial adjustment, but author Queen was so popular at the time, and his logic so mesmerizing, that his publishers may have refrained from suggesting any editorial change. Who knows? Maybe, somewhere early on, my objection is accounted for. But I just could not find it. (September, 2015)

I now surprise myself by discovering at the end of this volume a commentary I had written in 1988. Which means that this is the third time I have read this novel—suggesting that the positive impression it made on me earlier is why I have read it again. Here is my 1988 review, one that is basically consistent with the above:

“A return to Queen proves very entertaining and rewarding. This book works because of the human relationships: Queen to the hero, the hero Bill to his suspect sister, the victim’s dual relationship to two families, and the wealthy family’s internal relationships. The puzzle is not great, although adequate, the solution not truly surprising (yet logical), the setting of Trenton not vivid.

“But the book works because this is a group of people caught up in interesting, crossing relationships, with a murder committed in their midst. Plus, the pacing is good, the trial scene well done, the dialogue mostly effective, and Ellery has a tongue-in-cheek attitude toward himself—all contributing to the book’s effectiveness. This may have been a transition point in Queen’s writing career, as it was for the victims in the story. One should read more Queen to find out, first back, and then forward.”

Which I am now in the process of doing.

Calamity Town (1942)

I must precede this commentary with an anecdote. I was so impressed by this mystery as a teenager that I mentioned it to a college colleague, a fellow writer. Oh, yes, he said, and I never suspected that so-and-so was the killer, naming that actual killer. Oh, no, I said, I had forgotten who it was and wanted to read it again. He apologized, but it did me no good. Because from that day to now, nearly seventy years later, I have not forgotten the name of the killer. And so I read it today with that foreknowledge. Which perhaps will enable me to appreciate better the artfulness of the telling. We shall see.

 

Ah, what fools these mortals be! For all these decades I have misinterpreted what my college friend said. He had been surprised, he said, that Pat—and I quickly interrupted, assuming from how he began that he was naming the killer. And so I had not wanted him to continue. Because I wanted to read this work again, and wanted to be able to rediscover who was the actual villain.

Except, my new reading reveals that the killer was not Pat. That I had forgotten who was, and that this reading enabled me to discover again who truly was. Which I will get to—with the caveat that my mistaken memory has not affected my response to this work.

For now, I suggest that what may have impressed my friend, and prompted his opening comment, was the surprising relationship that developed between Ellery Queen and this girl named Pat. Never before had Ellery become emotionally involved with one of the characters in a mystery story. Yet here it was, beginning with casual flirting, and then evolving into an emotional connection.

What, I wondered, was author Queen going to do with this? (Of course, I was also wondering how on earth, given the events, Pat could be the murderer.) Well, in truth, author Queen ducked out on the romance issue —and not that convincingly. For Ellery simply returns to solving the crime, and to demonstrating the emotionless brain power that he has long been known for. So the starting of the relationship was a surprise, but not its ending.

But to the novel itself, and the fond memories which prompted me to revisit it. I can see why. Because the setting is so different. Author Queen has created at entire town, Wrightsville, presumably located in upstate New England or New York. It is so different from Queen’s metropolitan environments that one was used to encountering. It is a town filled with taxi drivers, hotel clerks, a newspaper publisher, reporters, pharmacists, real estate brokers, bar owners, nosey neighbors, and a town drunk, as well as a police chief, prosecutor, coroner, and judge, as required by mystery stories.

Another difference is the family that the author has created at the center of his mystery. This is the Wright family, whose ancestors founded the town, and who represent the pinnacle of society. There are the older parents, Hermione and John F., daughters Lola, Nora, and Pat, Nora’s former fiancée Jim who fled on the eve of their wedding and has now returned, and Jim’s sister Rosemary. Complicating the relationships is that the newspaper publisher Frank Lloyd still loves Nora and the county prosecutor Carter Bradford loves Pat.

Ellery becomes involved with this family after choosing to settle in Wrightsville to write a novel, and he rents a house that originally was to be the home of Nora and Jim. And then he gracefully gives it up when Jim returns and Nora accepts a new marriage proposal. The family is grateful to Ellery, draws him into their home, and then he becomes fascinated when, first, letters appear that threaten the life of Nora, and then another person is killed, apparently in her place. It is an intriguing situation that involves the reader as well, and I can see why I liked this work so much—both the rural setting created by Queen and the involved family relationships—and why Ellery himself was equally drawn into the situation.

There is again an interesting trial for murder. In this case, Jim is accused of murder, and prosecutor Bradford tries to prove his guilt, while Ellery, his rival for Pat’s affection, looks for evidence that the reader assumes will exonerate Jim. The evidence is more circumstantial than in Halfway House, while the trial itself ends abruptly after an arbitrary action by one of the characters. Or should one say the author? In any event, we then come to the ending, and to Ellery’s detailed logic that explains who is the villain. And I must say it is richly complex, and fascinating in its complexity. Its twist, in fact, is worthy of an Agatha Christie.

But while it ties the actions of these characters together as a logical possibility, it is not convincing to me as the only possibility. It involves, for example, a major moral change in one of the characters, a sudden psychological weakness on the part of another, and a false identity for two additional characters. This is a lot to chew on, as Ellery lays out his surprising theory of what actually happened.

The result is that I remain impressed but unconvinced. Impressed by the writing, the family dynamics, and the setting, but not convinced by the solution. Nor by the deaths at the end that re-enforce the tidy solution. I sense that author Queen wanted to create a surprise ending that turned the story back on itself. And in theory he did. But, with the two arbitrary deaths capping it off, it was simply too much for me. (September, 2015)

With this reading, I complete my brief current review of Queen’s works. I explained earlier what drew me to this series. And I remained interested as author Queen stretched the usual parameters of the mystery format. He wanted to move beyond the genre level, and one can only admire him for that literary ambition. On the other hand, I can see why Ellery the detective is often seen as too egotistical, too detached, and too comfortable with his own logic—even with the humanizing introduced in the third work here. It is this emphasis on logic that primarily concerned me in the last two of these works, in that it leaves no room for other possibilities. It appears to be a hallmark that author Queen introduced in order to make Ellery distinctive, but I believe he emphasized it too much.

Being Dead, by Jim Crace

This 1999 work is a novel which the critics loved, but which I loathed. Loathed so much that I skimmed through it in one sitting. I almost did not write any comment, but I finally decided to be honest with myself and with the reader, even if it would expose my prejudices, my blindness, or simply my failings as a critic.

This is the story of Joseph and Celice, an elderly couple found murdered on a sand dune. They were scientists and teachers, unsuited for society but, we learn, perfectly suited for each other. Indeed, these unappealing characters were deeply in love, and went to the dunes to recapture the first sharing of their desire thirty years earlier.

The novel then advances on three levels. The first is their actual death in the immediate past, as the murderer sneaks up, and brains the unaware couple for their valuables. The second is the slow rotting of their bodies and the arrival, for a week, of birds, crabs, and insects to feed on those bodies. The third returns to a more distant past, to the couple’s initial meeting, courtship, and 30-year marriage. It is a marriage of two misfits, and this reader found it difficult to relate to or sympathize with either party. My approach was as clinical as was the author’s to their decaying bodies.

Much of the second half of the novel returns to the present, and concerns their equally uninteresting and estranged daughter as she searches for her missing parents. At this point, one wonders if Crace has deliberately created uninteresting characters in order that the reader focus on the corrupting bodies in the sand. Indeed, is that why he has created the dead couple as zoologists?

Yes, the process of corruption was distasteful to me, as was the details of the actual murder, including the couple’s complete unawareness of the killer as he inches closer. But what turned me off, primarily, was the unpleasantness of all the characters. Again, this is, I believe, because Crace wanted me to concentrate not on the characters but on death itself. And yet, it seems to be the “beauty” of this clinical description of the murder and the decaying bodies that has fascinated critics—along with the objectivity that confronts these unpleasant characters with inevitable death.

Such critics, I surmise, have no belief in or interest in any aspect of one’s character that might continue after death. Much like the author’s own lack of interest in his earlier tale about a Christ-like character spending forty days in the desert. Indeed, my reaction to that work, Quarantine, is consistent with my reaction here: “Crace, however, appears as uncomfortable with the spiritual world as he is comfortable with the physical world. And so while this novel succeeds in literary terms… it fails in its larger mission to discover a truth about a man and the meaning of his life. Crace sees his world precisely, but sees it only on the surface.”

Thus, I will accept that the author has even less interest in this book in the possibility of existence beyond death. But I feel he has stacked his deck too much. He has pushed the fact of inevitable death into our face and twisted it. I do not like being force-fed. I do not like being confronted with unpleasant people who endure an unpleasant death, and who live on only through their decomposing bodies. As if that is all of us that exists. That his decaying hand is found clutching her decaying ankle is not for me the beautiful symbol of love that the author intends.

To sum up, I am not as fascinated with the body as are the author here and his critics. We are more than bodies. We are hearts, minds, and souls. We are families. We are an interdependent society. We are more than two bodies decaying alone on distant sand dunes.

Of course, Grace’s sole purpose here may have been to convey the reality of death. Which explains why he took the various technical steps I have criticized above. If so, my response is that the result is a tour-de-force—and fails to meet my parameters for a work of literature. Simply put, I do not like dead ends. (July, 2015)

Aiding and Abetting, by Muriel Spark

This 2001 work is a beautifully conceived novel and professionally executed until the end, when it fails to match its inspired beginning—perhaps because the inspiration came from history, from a real crime that was never solved. Which means that Spark had to accommodate her ending to the known facts.

This is the story of two men who walk, separately, into the office of a famous Paris psychiatrist and claim to be a Lord Lucan who killed his children’s nanny 24 years earlier in a bungled attempt to murder his wife. The psychiatrist, Hildegard Wolf, is actually Beate Pappenheim, who herself has a problematic background. Years earlier, she swindled many people by posing as a stigmata. Indeed, she is also based on a historic figure, be it one who swindled people rather than assaulted them. But it is a typical cavalier approach by Spark, and, as I said, an inspired one, to combine these two historic personalities into one work of fiction.

The reader, like Hildegard, speculates about which of the two men who seek psychiatric help is the real Lord Lucan—one called Lucky or one called Walker—and why they claim to need such help. Later, however, and arbitrarily, Spark revels that the two men are conspiring colleagues, and they plan to blackmail Hildegard by threatening to reveal her past. It seems they need money. It seems that their wealthy aiders and abettors, who believe in protecting their fellow aristocrats, have been providing the true lord with money; and now they are now dying away, shrinking his source of funds.

And just as the two lords exist in a world of conceit and deceit, so Spark implies does Hildegard. For instead of listening to the lives and problems of her patients, like most psychiatrists, she tells them her own problems, until they either give up or buy into her approach. This is Spark, ever aloof, satirizing the life of both of her adversaries

The intrigue between these two dueling parties fades in the center of this short novel, however, as two figures from the lord’s past seek to track him down and interview him about the 24 years in which he has moved around the world, always being funded, and always escaping capture. The satire here extends beyond the life of self-righteous aristocrats to the pursuit of villains in detective stories. It even has a parallel track, with Hildegard herself disappearing briefly and her lover Jean-Pierre seeking to track her. Eventually, Spark does bring the pursuing couple into partnership with Hildegard and her lover, but their joining of forces is somewhat contrived.

The end result is a moral satire about an artful murderer dueling with a master con-woman. Spark here covers three bases. She addresses the nature of evil, indicts upper class mores, and maneuvers her characters into her resolution, in this case matching the history of an unsolved crime.

This is vintage Spark, even if imperfect, even if inspired by history rather than the author’s own imagination. For she remains aloof from her characters, revealing their crimes but letting the facts expose their true selves. Aristocratic Lord Lucan is so convinced of the justice of his every act, for example, that he believes it was his wife’s destiny to die. Just as it will be the destiny of his fellow Lord Lucan.

But although the two Lord Lucans become adversaries at the end, perhaps to meet the author’s needs, perhaps to add a new irony, the true duel is between Lord Lucan and Hildegard, as both threaten to reveal the other’s past. Michiko Kakutani points out their similarities in her New York Times review: “Both have spent much of their adult lives inventing new identities for themselves; and both, so to speak, have blood on their hands,” meaning Beate has because she faked the stigmata by placing menstrual blood on her hands.

The ending, which doesn’t work for me, has a touch of Waugh. The two Lord Lucans end up in Africa, and each becomes the victim of a different ironic fate. It is not the same as Waugh, and not as powerful, but it belongs to the same family of fates.

To sum up, this is 83-year-old Spark in complete control of her characters and their fates. She uses irony and satire to establish a certain moral level, but a level her characters easily transgress. The drawback is that it is an inspired treatment of a plot, but it is not itself an inspired plot. And because it must conform to certain facts of history, the conclusion does not have the bite that one expects from this author. (July, 2015)

Live by Night, by Dennis Lehane

This 2012 work is a gangster novel to end all gangster novels. It is Lehane being a serious writer again, producing a work far superior to Moonlight Mile, even if this is not quite a literary work. Why? Because it stresses action, which I like, but at the expense of character, depth, and human values.

It is the story of Joe Coughlin, a minor character in The Given Day—a story of the Coughlin family, and a novel that is literature.

Joe is the black sheep in the family, the son who is impatient, who is greedy, and who does not respect the moral standards his family claims it stands for. He does not, in part, because his father Thomas Coughlin, a severe Boston police captain, is not the upstanding man he appears to be.

The novel begins with a spectacular first paragraph. Joe’s legs have been put in cement by Tampa gangsters who are preparing to dump him overboard, and he recalls how everything began with his meeting a cool beauty, Emma Gold, as he robbed a Boston speakeasy of mobster Albert White. This sets up both the Boston and Florida settings, even as the reader wonders if this first paragraph, besides being a teaser, is actually telling us about Joe’s final fate.

This novel is thus in two parts. It begins in Boston, where Joe calls himself an outlaw rather than a gangster, as he rationalizes his rebellion from his father’s strict moral code. Nevertheless, he works for one Irish boss, Tim Hickey, who is in conflict with another, Albert White. And Joe’s initial fate is sealed when he falls for a woman, Emma Gould, who is the mistress of Albert White.

Joe’s partner in the Hickey gang is a boyhood chum, Dion Bartolo. Joe’s Boston fate is determined when he robs a bank with Joe and his brother, and they are betrayed. As a result, Joe ends up in jail in Charlestown, the most powerful section of the novel, where Joe’s fearlessness impresses Maso Pescatore, the incarcerated but powerful leader of a Mafia gang. Fearful of Maso’s threat on his own and his father’s life, Joe becomes subservient to Maso. And Maso, after Joe’s effective scheming in the jail, even against Maso, is impressed, and sends Joe off to Tampa, Florida, to run Maso’s operations there.

The Tampa section is more interesting than Boston’s, because in Boston Joe was following the orders of his boss, whereas in Tampa he is the boss, even as part of Maso’s empire. Thus, he is making the decisions rather than reacting to orders; and he is joined there by a loyal Dion.

While the dramatic highlight of the book is the Charlestown jail sequence, the Tampa section has a carefully planned robbery of guns from an American supply ship. The weapons are intended for the Cuban underground trying to topple Machado, the island’s dictator. Joe commits himself to this plot—it is here he meets Graciela—because he needs the local Cuban contacts for his gangster empire.

Many Cubans are at risk in this plot, of course, and, as elsewhere in this novel, when someone dies there is no sentiment involved—either from Joe or the novelist. Perhaps because this is a gangster world. Everyone, including Joe, lives with the expectation of death. And, note, it is without an expectation of reward or punishment in an afterlife.

As I said, Joe now meets Graciela, a Cuban beauty who wishes to accomplish good in the world, but is conflicted because she doesn’t believe good deeds can follow (Joe’s) bad money. She and Joe make an emotional connection, however, and he discovers he is over his love for Emma, whom he believes is dead. So Joe and Graciela begin living together, even as they work separately.

It is in Tampa that Joe’s character is hardened, for he reasons with some but is forced to kill others who threaten him or his friends. Not to be ignored is how Lehane has made us identify with and sympathize with this gangster killer. This is probably the book’s major achievement—getting the reader committed to a complex man who breaks all the rules of society even as he remains loyal to Dion, his closest friend, and to Graciela, his lover. This, in its own way, mirrors good coming out of bad.

I have two major issues with this novel. The first centers on police chief Irving Figgis and his beautiful daughter, Loretta. Figgis is introduced as an accommodating but no nonsense chief, and his daughter as an innocent. But she soon suffers an unexpected fate worse than death, and then responds unbelievably, while her father rescues her, then changes, also unbelievably.

My second reservation is the ending. After the Tampa power struggle has ended, Lehane moves his characters to Cuba for a quiet ending. Why, one asks? Nothing is happening. We witness the creation of a tobacco farm, and Joe resolves his love life. Then, on a return to Florida, a final violence seems tacked on, as if Lehane felt that some kind of justice needed to be meted out. I am not convinced, however. There is too much coincidence involved, plus an unconvincing perpetrator.

To sum up, this is an admirable gangster novel. It blends the evil of man and some of the humanity of man, with the former triumphant because this is a gangster novel. While it has a few interesting foregound characters, it kills off a lot of faceless people, producing a heartless novel, a novel of characters who live by a criminal code and accept their fate.

I will follow more Lehane, but I have had enough of the gangster milieu here. I think families offer a much richer environment for exploring the nuances of humanity. The gangster world is too black and white, even if Lehane attempts to mix that black and white. The family setting of The Given Day, on the other hand, offers built-in shades of grey, of good and evil, that provide for far greater character nuances. (December, 2013)

Raylan, by Elmore Leonard

This 2012 novel is a disappointment. Is it really a novel, in fact? It reads more like three interconnected novellas. In fact, I was not intending to comment on it, but…after all, Elmore Leonard is Elmore Leonard.

   This is the latest story about sharp-shooting U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens. The latest three stories. The first is about a nurse who carves out people’s kidneys, and holds the body part for ransom. The second concerns a ruthless female coal mine executive who handles environmental and community complaints. The third is about a Butler student coed who is a wiz at poker, and beats all the boys at their game. The book’s unity sems to stem from the fact that these three subjects of Raylan’s attention are all women. Smart women. And villainous women in the first two cases.

   What the work does is explore three different backgrounds in three different stories: the medical industry, the coal mining industry, and poker playing. The coal mining company is the main target of Leonard, as he exposes its indifference to both the environmental impact of coal mining and the negative economic effect of lost jobs. Viewed much more favorably is the poker playing industry, since Raylan is intrigued by the utterly frank and self-confident Jackie Nevada.

   Wait, there is also Delroy Lewis, an ex-convict who seeks revenge for being kicked out of a Florida town by Raylan in a previous case. We meet him running a team of three female bank robbers. They have nothing to do with Raylan’s three assignments, except Jackie Nevada is introduced when she is wrongly suspected as one of the three female bank robbers.

   Like any Leonard work, this one keeps moving. But it is as if Leonard no longer finds it easy to stretch out his tale with complexities, whether moral complexities or criminal complexities. So he puts three simpler tales together to produce one book. Which is not uncommon—see Graham Greene—for authors getting on in years and finding their imagination failing.

   What is particular regretful is that Raylan himself has no depth, and is not alive on these pages. He faces no conflicting motives, no moral issues, no capable rival to challenge either his actions or his thinking. He is simply reacting, going through the motions. He is known to be easy-going, but he is too easy-going here, even with some of the bad people. He has no impact on anyone, until he shoots one person at the end.

   Other minor characters pop up for amusing or narrative reasons. They include a black driver, a company yes-man, two bumbling brothers, their old drug baron father, and a millionaire poker fan. Some are killed, and the others flame up and are easily forgotten.

   Of course, Leonard may revert to form in his next work and create interesting and complex situations, but right now I would not be willing to bet on it. Even though I wish it would happen, for he has long created interesting people involved in the complex world of criminal activity. (October 2013)