Tuesday, July 03, 2012
Back on the Book Beat
The latest installment of "Book Beat," my long-running column for the magazine Pomp and Circumstantial Evidence, a part of the Magna Cum Murder Mystery Conference at Ball State University:
STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG BY KATE ATKINSON
A retired British policeman impulsively buys a child from a drug addict; a sometime private eye rescues a dog from an abusive man at a park; and an elderly actress struggles with dementia while co-starring on a hit detective show; how these stories cross, loop back, and fold in on each other forms the heart of Started Early, Took My Dog.
I picked this up on a whim based on the title alone, having never heard of Kate Atkinson. I found a rewarding, complex mystery that may be one of my favorites of the year.
The story picks up threads of the notorious Manchester Ripper case of the 70s and reaches all the way to contemporary times, following the life arcs of many complicated, fully-realized characters, including tarnished cops and well-meaning criminals. The diverse storylines, which include a humorous running background thread about a cheesy cop show, are very nicely tied up at the end.
Atkinson is a fine literary writer with all of the requisite beats for mystery fans. Recommended.
1222 BY ANNE HOLT
A terrible accident derails a train in a snowy Norwegian mountain pass, and the survivors--including a paralyzed former policewoman, a troubled teenager, a magnetic religious leader, and at least one killer--manage to make it to a ski lodge--where their real problems begin--in Anne Holt's thriller 1222.
Even though the novel has the locked-room trappings of an Agatha Christie novel 1222 is quite a crackling thriller, despite featuring an unusually dour protagonist (even by the high standards of the typically gloomy Scandinavian mystery) in the paralyzed, retired detective.
The storytelling is exceptional, ratcheting up the suspense as the reader learns about a mysterious passenger sequestered behind armed bodyguards, various political ramifications involving high levels in the Norwegian government, and an increasing body count.
Holt is apparently quite popular in her native Norway, and although this is one of the later novels in her series featuring the reluctant police detective I believe it is the first translated into English. I hope to see more of this series.
WOLF TICKETS BY RAY BANKS
Two old friends--who bonded over shared sociopathic tendencies and various addiction problems-- find themselves chasing an old girlfriend who ran off with another man, a cache of drugs, and a prize leather jacket; soon things get worse, then worse again, in Ray Banks' Wolf Tickets.
I thoroughly enjoyed an early outing from Edinburgh noir author Banks, Dead Money, another very tough crime novel, so I was eager to pick this one up. Once again this novel features two knockaround protagonists--although in this case with chapters in alternating voices--and a storyline that veers from sardonic humor to chilling spatters of violence.
The main drawback to Wolf Tickets is that at times I had a hard time delineating between the two voices; but this one also comes with a warning for the casual reader who is unprepared for various scenes of violence, torture, and abuse (of substances, other people, and The King's English).
This came to me from Blasted Heath, a highly admirable ebook publisher from across the pond who are putting out some crackling contemporary noir. Recommended for fans of the hard-boiled.
RAYLAN BY ELMORE LEONARD
Federal marshal Raylan Givens takes on a variety of Kentucky criminals, from organ traffickers to corporate thieves to cold-blooded killers, in Elmore Leonard's Raylan.
Leonard's laconic, trigger-eager lawman has appeared in several earlier crime novels but has become more prominent since the FX television show Justified featured the character, in a solid portrayal by Timothy Olyphant.
Unfortunately I found the storytelling in this one more television-sized, picking up characters and situations from the show and sometimes riffing on them in different ways; but I felt Raylan never really creating a large enough stage for the characters, as one might hope for when freed from the constrictions of TV production.
That being said, it is a quick, enjoyable read and pretty solid for a late entry in Leonard's bibliography, which has run hot and cold in recent years.