Tag Archives: mystery

Hi, Hannah

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Title: Birth Marks

Author: Sarah Dunant

Published: 1992

Series: The Hannah Wolfe Crime Novels

Summary: Hannah, back in London, is hired to find a missing ballet dancer, Carolyn Hamilton.  When Carolyn is found dead only days after, under the assumption of suicide, Hannah is asked to find out why.    What she uncovers, layer by layer, is a truth that reveals more about herself than she was looking for.

This book was lent to me, highly recommended, by a friend [thank you, Lisa!] who knows my love of mysteries, and my general Anglophilia, so I eagerly began reading it nearly as soon as it was in my hands.  I was hooked after the opening paragraph:

Mistake number one: I should never have sublet the flat.  Mistake number two was letting myself be taken in by appearances.  With a job like mine, you’d think I would have learnt by now.  But she had seemed such a shrinking violet, an anthroplogy student with so many religous books that she was clearly having trouble with Darwin.  Obviously somewhere over the last three months the evolutionists had struck back.  The kitchen smelt as if a dinosaur had died there and the bed looked as though it had been used to test out the survival of the fittest theory.  Sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll   It had all happened here.  And I hadn’t had any of them.  Ah, these young people.  As a woman on the wrong side of thirty I could feel disapproval coming on.[1]

Hannah Wolfe’s strong narrative presence is a constant throughout the novel.  She was the reason I kept reading, as her desire to know the truth about the dead dancer fueled the narrative onward.  Hannah’s a professional private eye, and a darn good one.  After reading long series of cozy mysteries where the “detective’s” involvement must be contrived, it was utterly refreshing to have Hannah investigating because it was her job.  Hannah rather reluctantly takes the case because she needs the money and because it’s the better of several rather dreary alternatives.   

Also making a nice change is that Dunant’s novel is peopled with three-dimensional characters, who don’t exist soley to drop the detective a clue.  These characters’ lives continue on while Hannah is not around, and when we revisit them, events in which we’ve played little or no part have altered their willingness to discuss Carolyn’s life. Hannah’s connection to the case grows while she slowly attempts to bring the thusly divergent pictures of the lost Carolyn into focus.  And yes, I am attempting to review this without given away any of the clues that Dunant went to such effort to skillfully scatter throughout her pages.

Being a single woman on “the wrong side of thirty,” Hannah also finds herself particularly vulnerable to the choices that various characters, particularly Carolyn, have made about motherhood– leading us into the central theme of the novel.  This is where Dunant gives herself away as a serious novelist [which she has now become], rather than simply a weaver of mysteries. Hannah’s narration becomes replete with womb imagery (a little heavy-handed, frankly) and her scrutiny of Carolyn’s life and death become a reflection upon her own life’s choices.  Certainly, I think, most women can relate, at least in part, to Hannah’s conflicted thoughts about the single, career-driven, independent life she has (and enjoys) and the children/ marriage/ domestic life she both admires and fears.  However, the existential angst with which Dunant wraps this internal narration had me checking the copyright date.  Yup, I confirmed to myself, 1992 sounds about right– and it also explains some of the ‘decadant eighties big business’ overtones.

Overall, though, I really enjoyed Dunant and Hannah, and will be eagerly adding the other two novels in the series, “Under My Skin” and “Fatlands” to my TBR list.

Sarah Dunant’s official website: http://www.sarahdunant.com/

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repost: Review of “The Shadow in the North”

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With Doctor Who reappearing on the BBC last week and on BBCAmerica next Saturday [April 17th] with Matt Smith as the new Doctor, I thought it would be appropriate to repost this review.  The movie below now stars 2 DW alumni. 

title: The Shadow in the North

from: PBS Masterpiece Mystery / BBC

based on: “The Sally Lockhart Mysteries”

by Philip Pullman

length: 86 minutes

I was predisposed to enjoy this because I liked Billie Piper as Rose in “Doctor Who” and one of the supporting actors (playing Jim) is Matt Smith, who is to be Doctor # 11. This is a nice opportunity to have them both in the same production. They do, indeed, do nice enough work, though the script is quite weak for Smith’s character. I have also already seen the first film in this series: “The Ruby in the Smoke” That one was ok—reminded me rather of Dickens’s “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” having an strong set-up and a weak finish (yes, I am aware that Dickens never finished the manuscript, but other authors have), along with a very obvious villain. However, I liked Sally, Jim, and Fredrick enough to keep watching and to look forward to the next one. I actually looked up the novels, but my library didn’t have them.

As for “The Shadow in the North,” it gains points for having a less obvious plot and a more complex group of supporting characters (Alistair MacKinnon & Axel Bellmann, particularly) than its predecessor. Unfortunately, Sally and the other main characters suffer for it—they don’t, frankly, get much to do. Poor Fredrick is reduced to appearing in a variety of unconvincing disguises and then (spoiler music, la la la la la) being killed just as he was getting interesting. The plot moves from clear realism through to the super-natural, though I would have liked to have the final “ghost” scenes better supported. They seem to appear out of nowhere.

(ok, personal rant here, nothing to do personally with Pullman’s work, but I HATE when authors kill off the romantic partners of their strong female characters just as they were about to be happy together. Why?? Why fall back on the idea that happily married/ affianced characters can’t be interesting? Why not let them be together & then work in the relationship’s ups and downs into the story. Diane Mott Davidson has done a lovely job of that. So, why make your main character broken and fragile, especially when the main thrust of the story is not her romantic entanglement, but actually the mysteries or adventures? Edna Buchanan, Patricia Cornwall, Philip Pullman… take note and stop it, already!)

Right, back on track (pun intended)—the idea of the deadly train engine was unusual and chilling, and the final set piece with Sally, when you don’t know what she is planning, is well done.

Overall: worth the watch, but mostly for Piper’s and Smith’s fans. 

For more, see below:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/shadow/

repost: review of “The Shortest Way to Hades”

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Title: The Shortest Way to Hades

Author: Sarah Caudwell

Series: the Hilary Tamar mysteries

Summary: A group of young London barristers, along with their former tutor Tamar, set out to investigate the suspicious death (deaths?) of one of their clients.  Half of the story happens in London, while the other half is in Corfu, Greece.

Once again, a fabulous and unique narrator.  Hilary Tamar is carefully written with intellectual language, elegant sentences, and a complete ambiguity about gender.  All of the other characters are clearly men or women, but Hilary is deliberately never defined.  Oh, there are clues, of course, but just when you think you have Hilary nailed down, something else slips in– and your ideas fold away.  People who review this book, like I am, often make a big deal about this, as it is so unusual, but I think the point that Caudwell is trying to make is that it doesn’t really matter to the story, so why include it?  And, she has a point. 

Ok, remember what I said a few posts ago about not like Literature ?  Well, I do like feeling smart about literature, I just don’t care, particularly, for reading it in my spare time.  The beautiful thing about Hilary, Cantrip, Selena, Timothy, Ragwort, and Julia is that they feel like an exclusive, academic club to which you, the reader, are also invited– meanwhile, you’re reading a mystery book.  I admit, I had to go back to my old copy of “The Odyssey” for a few of the more obscure references, but that’s what makes this worth the read– that plot elements of classical Greek literature play an essential part in the plot of the story.  Speaking of plotting– Caudwell’s plot construction is so tight, you don’t even realize what she’s done until the very end when every piece falls neatly into place.  If you don’t know your “Odyssey,” though, don’t worry.  The relevant passages are made clear enough without background reading.  Also, Caudwell thankfully DOES include a family tree at the front of the novel to help the poor reader keep track of the various members of the Jocasta clan.

Now, onto the dialogue, which is my favorite thing about this book & this entire series.  Each character speaks with a lovely, high-lettered way.  Other reviews have called their tone “ironic,” but I feel it is more Wodehousian– calling it irony takes away from the beautiful playfulness of the novel.  The interplay of each character’s speaking style, along with the “come on, gang!” element makes it feel like a more serious version of one of his best novels.  I actually read most of the dialogue aloud, just because it was fun to say. Cantrip’s speeches, in particular, stand out.  It’s a pity that Caudwell only wrote the 4 books in this series, a bit of short story, and one play.  We won’t get any more, either, because she died 9 years ago.  (I know, she was busy being a tax barrister and all, but it’s a shame).  For example, Hilary doesn’t want to grade final exam essays (I know the feeling).  She explains this as follows: “The suggestion had been made by some of my colleagues that I should participate in the marking of the summer examinations which in Oxford we refer to as Schools.  Much as I was honored by the proposal, I had felt obliged to decline: who am I to sit in judgement on the young?  Moreover, the marking of examination scripts is among the most tedious of occupations.  I had accordingly explained that the demands of Scholarship– that is to say, of my researches into the concept of causa in the early Common Law– precluded any other commitment of my time and energies.”  Now, don’t you wish you would write that way when turning down an assignment at work?

Overall: Anglophiles– you’ll love this series.  Nicely, too, you don’t have to read them in order. 

For more see below:

http://www.randomhouse.com/author/results.pperl?authorid=4521

a sweet treat of a novel

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hi, ya’ll!  This was the last book I read during the summer, and the tiny bit of the review I wrote has been sitting here in the draft box and taunting me for weeks to finish it– so here it finally is!

Title: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Author: Alan Bradley

Pub date: 2009

Series: (the bio at the end of the book promises a sequel)

Summary: In the summer of 1950, Flavia de Luce, an eleven-year-old chemist (specializing in poisons), is living in her expansive but crumbling ancestral home out in the English countryside.  One afternoon, a dead rook with a stamp on its beak is found on the kitchen doorstep.  By the end of the week, there is a dead man in the cucumber patch, her father has been arrested for murder, and Flavia has taken up the job of solving the mystery in her own inemitable way.

What first attracted me to this novel was its perfect size and cover.  It’s just the right size, as a hardback with nice rounded edges, to fit in a purse or a coat pocket.  The cover art is simple but intriguing, and it contains an essential clue to the story’s plot.  (No, I’m not going to tell you what it is.)  It’s also long enough that I couldn’t finish it in one sitting, but it was still a fairly quick read.  Towards the end, I actually slowed myself down to savor it, as the sequel is not yet available, and I wanted to spend more time with Flavia.

Speaking of the heroine/ detective Flavia…I don’t know how Alan Bradley did it, but he somehow went back in time, read my eleven-year-old mind, and then created just the sort of girl I really, really wanted to be!  She rides her bike everywhere, lives in a sprawling, crumbling mansion, is clever, solves mysteries, and is a chemistry prodigy (ok, that last part I didn’t dream about).  She’s a delight to read about, and precocious in just the right amount of way.  I didn’t get sick of her or find her too adult-like, as is often the case with child-heroes.  Spot on, Mr. Bradley!

The mystery itself is quite good, if a bit wrapped up in esoterica, but Bradley gives the reader all of the information they need in simple and natural pieces.  I like learning things from mystery novels, as I’ve said before, and here I learned a bit about rare stamps and British history.  Unlike some authors whose early books contained lessons which are really unnecessary to the plot (yes, Kathy Reichs, I’m talking to you.  You’ve improved now, though, so good job), all of the little lessons here are crucial to the reader’s understanding of the plot– even when they don’t seem to be.  So, pay attention, ladies and gentlemen.

Bradley clearly won the Dagger Award for a reason with this novel.  It’s a good ‘un. 

 

For more, check out the website below:

http://www.flaviadeluce.com/

the last saturday of summer

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It’s Saturday again, and you all know what that means… it’s Library Day!

Best snags today– newest Dorothy Cannell mystery; “The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie”; and “The Hound of the Baskervilles” with Jeremy Brett as Holmes.  (What is that I smell?  A comparison post?  Yummo!)

Check out my sidebar for the rest of my lovely swag.

And yes, coming this evening to a blog near you– Douglas Adams appreciation.  Watch this space.

a howl on the moor

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 Ah, and here it is… the long-awaited second half of my comments on “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce.

When we left our heroes, Holmes had shed his beggar disguise, and he and Watson were headed back to Baskerville Hall.  As they walk across Dartmoor, suddenly, they hear a howl…

  • How can they “follow” a sound that has stopped?
  • “Notting Hill Murderer”?  Where did this subplot come from?  Are Will & Anna involved?
Should they be worried about the Notting Hill Murderer? 

Should they be worried about the Notting Hill Murderer?

  • Ah, the boot is properly explained.  This was a good clue.
  • Again with Stapleton recognizing people whom he has never before met!  That’s quite a skill.
  • Why is Stapleton not at all shocked by the dead body at his feet?  Shouldn’t he show at least a bit of horror?
  • Holmes is kind when he breaks the news to Mrs. Barryman.
  • Again!  These “upper-crust” types have no lasting sympathy for underlings– they are to be considered and then dismissed.
  • Oh, Rathbone!  That was nearly straight to camera.

  • I like these discussions on the train between Holmes and Watson, explaining the plots & plans.  It is very reminiscent of what I like best about the radio series.
  • Ah– Mr. Franklin, you are so spunky!
  • How unfortunate about the wagon.
  • What a sweet touch with the broach.
  • That’s quite the dress & jewelry Beryl is wearing!
  • The Stapleton’s hall looks like it was designed by a high-school acting company on a budget.
  • Ah– an what is the cunning Stapleton up to now?  Black gloves bode no good.
  • Poor doggie!  But that explains the “grave-robbing” charge.
  • Now, given the size of Dartmoor, I find it rather inconceivable that Holmes and Watson can find the moving dog by his growls.
  • Quite the savage dog attack, actually.  Pretty intense.
  • Again, the poor doggie.  Was it really necessary to shoot at him?
  • “Mr. Holmes…” you were wrong.
  • It was pretty clear that “IT” was a dog, Sir Henry.
  • Nice bit of tracking by Holmes and good sound effect touches in the background– noticable for the general lack of music through the rest of the film
  • Oh, Holmes!  You should have seen that one coming.  We all did.
  • Why aren’t they treating Sir Henry for rabies?  He was just attacked by a vicious dog.
  • Why does Stapleton want him dead?
  • No, Don’t Drink It!

Don't be like Alice, Sir Henry!

  • Awfully clever of you, Holmes!  How did you manage that trick?  {we’re never shown}
  • About that dog:  I seem to recall that the dog in the book was painted to glow in the moonlight. Maybe they couldn’t manage it in the studio?
  • A cute plot, young Stapleton.  Completely mad, but cute.
  • So, where did Holmes get these constables, eh?  He hasn’t been to town since he left with Watson on the return train.
  • Uncharacteristic of Holmes not to go running after his quarry.  The man just disappears, and we never hear about him again.  What an anti-climactic ending.
  • Holmes’s face during Mortimer’s effusions is classic.
  • Wait?  What?!  He just goes to bed?  That’s it?!  And everyone takes this?
  • Wow.  “Oh, and Watson, the needle.” — First off, kudos for sneaking that reference past the censors; Second- -pedants would know that Holmes would never use his needle right after a case– only when he got bored.

Ok– Overall, a decent first-effort towards telling the story on film and contains an excellent pair of Holmes & Watson.  However, the plot is over-simplified and the ending falls very flat.  A shame, that.  It’s a fairly short movie, and there should have been plenty of room to fill in the details.

Holmes and the Hound, part 1

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“The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1939) 

80 minutes; black & white

Starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce 

As promised, here are my comments on this film.  I’ll be presenting them in two parts.

I’ve owned a set of the “New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” radio dramas (1939-46) since high school, so I am very familiar with Rathbone & Bruce’s voices and their acting styles.  In 46, Rathbone bowed out, and Bruce then continued the series for a bit with Tom Conway as Holmes.  I’m considerably less familiar with their film work, though I have seen a few movies.  “The Hound of the Baskervilles” was Rathbone & Bruce’s first movie together, and its popularity inspired all of the later films, as well as the radio series.  So, this is an important film in the Holmesian canon.

 I’m working with a foggy memory as regards the plot of this story, as it has been donkey’s years since I read Conan Doyle’s novel, not since my ill-fated attempt to teach it to seventh graders.  Yeah, it didn’t go well, but never mind.  It wasn’t the book’s fault. And… we’re moving on…

The preceding paragraph will probably be the last truly coherent one in this post.  I could write a sophisticated and erudite analysis of this film’s cinematography and its pivotal role in our modern collective consciousness’s image of Sherlock Holmes, but what fun would that be?

 

Instead, what follows are my scribbled thoughts as I made my way through the film.

 

–    As they run the credits, I am reminded that a new Holmes movie is on its way to our theaters.  I’m tentatively anticipating it. 

–    Who is this David Stewart Davies on the optional commentary?  What has he done to make him qualified to comment on this?  The booklet doesn’t say.

–    Bizarre fact: the *stars* of the film are credited 2nd & 4th.

–    I  ♥ Big Ben & foggy Baker Street.

–    Interesting how much these 1930’s movies expected their audience to read.  Not just “oh, look, something is written in the newspaper” but then leaving said paper up on the screen long enough for everyone to read the entire article.  A hold over from silent films, perhaps, or just indicative of their expectations of an intelligent, literate, participatory audience?

–    After hearing so many of the radio adventures, ‘tis strange to SEE the actors speaking with those familiar voices.

–    The bit with Watson’s deductions from the walking stick—I don’t know if I approve of his giving Watson a chance, or if I am annoyed that Holmes so gleefully knocks down his friend’s efforts.

teeth marks

–    Ah, now we know what Doctor Mortimer’s wife didn’t want him telling the coroner, but why was she so interested in keeping it a secret?

–    Ok—this just annoys me.  This “flashback/ reading the legend” scene is presented as the wacky hijinks of drunken frat-boys, complete with “sitcom-esque” music in the background.  Um…hello, Director:  this scene describes the kidnapping, rape, and murder of an under-aged girl by a sadistic aristocrat.  It lays the groundwork for why this sinister, supernatural Hound torments and murders the Baskerville family down the ages.  What WERE you thinking?

–    When compared to the previous sheaf of papers, Mortimer’s “few pages” seem to have expanded to a novella.

–    If I were Holmes, at this point, I would have yanked the pages from Mortimer by now and skimmed them myself.

–    I wonder if Rathbone was actually playing the violin here?  If so… yum!

   {wait for it.  song starts around 1:45}

–    Right off, we establish Sir Henry as handsome, generous, and polite to girls in glasses.  [see Dorothy Parker]

–    Point of order:  how will they know where to send Sir Henry’s luggage?

–    It can’t be easy to throw a stone through the side window of a moving vehicle.

–    More reading for the audience.  I’m going to stop mentioning it, and simply put a count total at the bottom of this post.  Let’s see if your count matches mine.

–    Here’s where I like Watson.  I was wondering that about the boots myself, and he asked it.

–    How much do I love male Victorian garb!  Gentlemen—you should really all wear more of this.

–    Nice bit of tension-building with the pistol, but it got me thinking {too much NCIS, clearly} how good is the sniper’s aim?  How far is the range of that dinky pistol?

–    Realism of the costumes extends to the chambermaid—no modern brassiere for her.  Couldn’t pull off that kind of accuracy nowadays.

–    What’s going on outside the window as Holmes interviews the cabbie?  A thunderstorm?

–    Sir Henry’s “Canadian” accent seems sketchy here.

–    Lovely atmospheric work on the matte paintings & studio-bound Stonehenge.

–    “If I believed all of the legends about this place, I wouldn’t live here.  I wouldn’t have the courage.”

–    Beautifully detailed paintings of Baskerville Hall.

–    I’m going to assume that the casting of Spartan-looking woman= servant who is up to no good.

–    Love Watson’s pen.  Want one.

–    Great moment with the door handle.

–    Watson and Sir Henry make a good, if bumbling, team.  Watson gets to do a bit of thinking for a change.

–    How far away WAS that light?

–    Gee, let’s hide in plain sight.  I’m sure the villain will return and ignore us completely.

–    Look out, Watson!

–    He’s right, you know.  Holmes would not want clodhopping policemen trouncing all over his investigation.

–    Sounds like a wolf to me.

–    Watson is a bit over-the-top here with Stapleton.  Why are they both so shocked to hear a woman’s voice?  Stapleton knows his sister was right behind him.

–    Was there any chance that Sir Henry WOULDN’T hear her calling him?  They were only about 4 feet apart, and she was shouting quite loudly.

–    No, no, you will not be a love interest at all.

–    Clearly, we are at the monthly dinner meeting of chops and ‘staches.

–    Poor wife looks really frightened of séance.  Why?

–    I like Franklin.  He’s spunky!

–    She does not look like the fisherman-type to me.

–    Nice how the conversation indicates that time has passed.

–    Aww.  Sweet—but awkward embrace there, and distinctly chaste.

–    Way to be prejudiced against the old peddler, everyone in this scene!  Bad!

being mean to beggar

–    Clever observation there, Watson; but you have not redeemed yourself.

–    Nice that his drawing room provides a convenient view of the exact place on all of the entire Moor where Sir Henry happens to be wandering.

–    That’s one long-burning match!

–    “What blasted impertinence!”

–    Ah—he gets you with that old chestnut every time, Watson, my lad.

–    Ok—why is Watson all shocked about “murder.”—isn’t that why ya’ll are out here on the Moor in the first place?  Have you not been paying attention?

 

So, as Watson & the newly-revealed Holmes head back to Baskerville Hall, we’ll call it a night.  More to come soon.

 

 

*** Starting from the beginning, I have so far counted 6 instances of the audience being expected to read from the screen.  Did I miss any?