Lady Killer by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

lady-killer-miasmaLady Killer by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Originally published 1942

This edition, Stark House Mystery Press, October 2003

My latest foray into older domestic suspense  is a definitely creepy story called Lady Killer. Elisabeth Sanxay Holding wrote mysteries from the late 1920’s until the early 1950’s, and a few of her books have been reissued by Stark House Press.  See the following post for a bit more information about her books.

Lady Killer tells the story of Honey Stapleton and her much older husband Weaver who embark on a boat trip from New York to the Caribbean at the beginning of the novel. Their marriage is beginning to deteriorate, and the challenges of being on a small ship with a decidedly strange cast of travelers make their marital problems stand out even more. Honey begins the journey feeling suspicious of the couple in the neighboring cabin, the newlyweds Captain and Alma Lashelle: she worries that the Captain is trying to murder his wife, and the rest of the book involves her attempts to get any of the other passengers or crew members to take her suspicions seriously. There also is a mysterious death on board and a couple odd forays onto islands for short excursions, all which seem ominous as well.

It’s a compact novel, it’s a creepy novel, but it’s not exactly my favorite kind of story. I gravitate towards more plot than suspense. Holding is so good at creating the claustrophobic atmosphere on the boat and in Honey’s head that I felt myself having to take breaks. The payoff was quite good, though. I’m glad I tried this author, and I’ll return to her when I’m looking for something really suspenseful again.

 

 

 

The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

laughing policeman

The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

Translated by Alan Blair

Originally published as Den skrattande polisen, 1968

This edition: Vintage Books, April 1977

I’m very happy to get back to the Martin Beck series, even if I was a little weirded out by the cover of this book. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book with a huge assault rifle on the cover. The cover stands in stark contrast to the source of the title, a 1920s novely record called The Adventures of the Laughing Policeman.

The Laughing Policeman is a compact story about a horrible crime rife with social commentary. The political commentary seems to grow as the series goes on. The crime at the center of the story is the mass shooting of 9 people on a double decker bus on a cold rainy night on the border of Stockholm and the suburb of Solna, the same night that most of the police force is at an anti-Vietnam protest. One of the murder victims was Stenström, a young member of Beck’s squad, but no one knows what he was doing on the bus.

The Martin Beck books tend to be heavy on the procedural part of a police procedural: it’s not just interrogations, but it’s scientific tests and strategy sessions. Because the crime was so large and garnered so much media attention, there are lots of  characters as Beck’s squad receives reinforcements from all over Sweden.

It’s a compact story, which is a great change of pace. It feels quite contemporary, which speaks to the couple’s influence on current crime writing. But parts of the story definitely place it in the 1960’s:  Gunnarson’s rants are pretty retrograde, on purpose; and there is a bit of victim-blaming that reminded me very much to the first book in the series, Roseanna. This is my favorite entry in the series so far.

 

 

 

 

Early Warning by Jane Smiley

early warningEarly Warning by Jane Smiley

Knopf, April 2015

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

Jane Smiley’s Last One Hundred Years Trilogy covers a century in roughly 1300 pages. While I was a fan of the first book, which happened to end in 1953, I have several reservations about Early Warning. I need less panorama and more characters whose actions make some sort of sense.

Early Warning covers the years of 1953 to 1986, and each chapter corresponds to one year. The four of the five Langdon children have moved all over the country while one stayed in Iowa to run the family farm. Both books end with a major character of one generation’s death (book 1 was the patriarch Walt Langdon, book 2 was a member of his child’s generation). Smiley also covers Vietnam, the Peoples Temple, psychotherapy, Reagan, and more. It’s an ambitious project, and at times I felt Smiley was veering into Forrest-Gump territory: because her cast is so big, she could have someone from the extended family touch on these events, and she went for it. Let me explain a little bit more about why the breadth of the novel didn’t sit right with me.

My biggest complaint about Early Warning is that the first half of the book (over 200 pages) barely gets into the wide cast of characters’ inner lives. I was mostly mystified by Frank Langdon, who’s clearly one of Smiley’s favorite characters, as he proceeded to be horrible to lots of people in his family and work life. He’s made millions in whatever industry he enters, including weapons and oil and gas. I had to take it on faith that he was charismatic or appealing to the other characters because we didn’t get into his wife’s head much at all, despite all the focus on her dedication to various psychotherapies in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s asking a lot of a reader to throw 250 pages of plot with lots of character without having a slightly ominiscient narrator or some sort of hints about the characters inner lives to go on. It’s especially glaring because the last half of the book is so thoroughly dedicated to the characters’ regrets, etc. Smiley has great faith that her readers find her characters as fascinating as she does, but I just don’t.

I sound grumpier than I actually was while I read this book: it’s easy to skim less appealing sections to get to the better half of the book or to avoid the parts that feel like places for her to show what research she did. There are several very affecting sections of the book. The wide canvas and large cast of characters without a central through-line  makes me wish for something more. I’d even be happy if she cut out Frank Langdon and his obnoxious twin sons. Focussing on a smaller group of characters would have improved the story for me as we march through such a long period of time, or in the alternative, she could have written an even longer series of books so no character and no period of time gets too little attention.

 

 

New Books by Jo Nesbø and Donna Leon

I’m catching up with a few thoughts about new books I’ve read recently: first a short thriller by Jo Nesbø, Blood on Snow and next the latest installment in Donna Leon’s long-running Inspector Brunetti series set in Venice, Falling in Love.  They were both fairly short, quick reads, which means I don’t have lots to say about them, hence the round-up post.

blood on snowBlood on Snow by Jo Nesbo, translated by Neil Smith

Knopf, April 2015

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

Blood on Snow is a short book, the start of a new series that is being adapted into a movie by Channing Tatum’s production company. Olav is a freelance fixer/ hitman, and this particular story finds him on the run from a previous employer or two and developing feelings for one of his targets. Because it’s such a short book, the action feels a bit more improbable than it would feel in a longer Harry Hole novel, but it was still an entertaining thriller. Overall, I like the Hole series better because the characters are more developed, and I’ve invested more time in them, I think.

Another review appears in EuroCrime.

And from a short thriller, I moved on to a book that focused more on the setting and characters than the mystery. The investigation in Falling in Love centers into a stalker of an opera star that Brunetti helped years earlier, Flavia Petrelli.  While I’m not a huge opera aficianado, Leon covers enough about the central opera of Tosca that I didn’t feel lost.

falling in love

Falling in Love by Donna Leon

Atlantic Monthly Press, April 2015

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

It’s nice to return to series when I’m a bit distracted by everything else. I liked that the book didn’t focus entirely on the tracking of Flavia’s stalker and instead spends time on Brunetti’s relatively undysfunctional family life and the more dysfunctional workings of his police department.

Leon is quite critical of the tourist trade in Venice and what it means for the city, and the actual story doesn’t glorify the city at all. It’s an antidote to the tourist-version of Venice, for sure. I enjoyed this entry, but I probably would have enjoyed it more if I’d read more of the Flavia-centered books earlier in the series.

Another review appears in Crimespree Magazine.

The Dying Beach by Angela Savage

dying beachThe Dying Beach by Angela Savage

Text Publishing, April 2015

Jayne Keeney book 3

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

I’m a big fan of the first book in the Jayne Keeney series, and I really liked this third entry in the series as well. Jayne, an Australian ex-pat who started a PI business after teaching English in Bangkok, is now running an agency with her partner Rajiv, and this particular installment finds them in the Krabi  on vacation. when Jayne discovers that her diving tour guide was found drowned at Princess Beach, she convinces Rajiv that they should take up the investigation pro bono, and Rajiv, the business-minded member of the agency, gives her a week.

The structure of the narrative is not traditional in the sense that Savage jumps from character to character and allows us to see quite a lot about the crimes that happen during Jayne’s seven day investigation. The big mystery returns to Pla’s death, the first in the series of crimes that occur. And, of course, the title is a mystery for quite some time as well.

There are lots of parts of the book that appeal to me. First, Jayne is not only just a touch of a bad-ass, she’s also human but not overrun with personality flaws. The environmental advocacy work that runs through this book feels organic, and the investigation of the environmental hazards of economic development are as unsettling as the other violent crimes in the book. The settings are very vivid, and the set pieces at a Buddhist temple fair, the Krabi Snake Farm, and a Buddhist funeral are very vivid. All-around this was a very satisfying read.

Other reviews appear in Whispering Gums and Fair Dinkum Crime.

This House of Grief by Helen Garner

this house of griefThis House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial by Helen Garner

Text Publishing, April 2015

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

 

This House of Grief follows the trial of Rob Farquharson, accused of murdering his three sons by driving them over a cliff into a dam in 2005. After a very brief introduction, we follow Garner observing Farquharson’s trials, which cover over five years. It’s the story of her opinion of him and the trial, but he is still a mystery by the end of the book. She talks a lot about the reactions of the jurors and the journalists with whom she sits, and it’s an interesting position. She doesn’t cover the court system regularly, but she has written a couple previous true crime books.

This is an appealing book because it distills the appeal of court-watching or crime-fiction-reading: Farquharson is still unknowable even through the years of trials and appeals. And figuring out how people cope with something so horrible happening to them is another draw.

Garner never interviews Farquharson’s ex-wife Cindy Gambino, but she does grow close to her parents. Garner is also quite honest about the toll of observing the trials for such a horrible crime: facing that horror is draining, and her comments about her own thoughts as well as the reactions of her fellow journalists and her young companion Louise for the first trial stand in for the variety of reactions people have to such a trials.

This is a brief book that was quite a quick read for me, and it one that has stayed with me, which is not so common. It’s not a book about the downfalls of the legal process or trials, though that happens in part (the trial proceedings are very detailed and technical in parts) It’s not a book that gets inside the mind of a killer, though there is some of that. It’s not a book that is sensationalistic about a horrific murder: it’s compelling because it’s a horrible crime and it’s hard to contemplate how Farquharson could have done it.  I’ll definitely be reading more Helen Garner.

Thanks to Kim at Reading Matters for recommending this author.

 

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

hausfrauhausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Random House, March 2015

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

I’m a very picky reader, and I tend not to jump on the hype wagon, but I was very curious about this book, a debut novel written by a poet about a disaffected and depressed ex-pat housewife who’s lived in Switzerland for nine years. It was a very compelling read though it wasn’t surprising plot-wise.The opening section of the book makes it very clear that Anna Benz is a twenty-first-century stand-in for Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary.  She’s an American living in a suburb of Zürich with her three young children, and her life revolves around her family, her German language classes, her therapy sessions, and her multiple extramarital affairs.

Part of what propelled me was trying to figure out if there was any resolution/ explanation for what made Anna so completely passive, and I’m still a bit mystified by that question. Part of me kept on reading because the discussion of language and therapy sessions were interesting. The continual discussions of fire, on the other hand, seemed a little too on-the-nose for me.

One complaint is one plot development that felt forced into the story to force a confrontation. That confrontation could have happened in any number of ways, and the one Essbaum chose seemed extreme.

I find a hell of a lot more stories about male ennui and midlife crises than female ones, and for that I think this novel has its place. But I worry that the trend of “complicated female characters” is veering into the complicated-for-the-sake-of-being-complicated territory. Anna is extreme, but Essbaum keeps pointing out that Anna’s wounds are largely self-inflicted. I would have liked some more hints about what made Anna so depressed and self-destructive. I mean, I have my theories, but the novel is pretty quiet on the subject. This was a very good read.