Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Complaints by Ian Rankin

Rankin has outdone himself with the first of a new mystery series set in Scotland. While one could always sense the potential in Rankin’s writing, he has entered the ranks of the finest with this new offering about the group of cops who look into the behavior and background of other cops to make sure they are all they should be in conducting their jobs. Malcolm Fox and his cronies in the office of the Complaints have sensitive jobs, but they are irreverent and funny as they negotiate barbs and arrows flung at them by the wily, bent, and armed police when investigations center on their activities.

I listened to the Hachette audio of this title, read as though it were literature by Peter Forbes. It was a perfect pairing of terrific writing and wonderful voice. The story itself leads us into the global financial meltdown as seen from Scotland’s side—the building disasters, the banks failures (remember the Royal Bank of Scotland was one of the big players), the slow economy. We have businesspeople and cops working together on some shady development schemes, and bending the law in the course of their duties.

This is an outstanding beginning for readers interested in starting Rankin for the first time, and I highly recommend the excellent audio production.

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Blue Lightning by Ann Cleeves

Blue Lightning: A Thriller

This is the first of Ann Cleeves’ series I have read. It was recommended to me by a reader who does not like explicit or gory forensic details and who claims that every Cleeves book has a big hook at the start to grab one into reading almost against one’s will. I was startled to find that this story started out with someone I thought was the main character—an unattached lesbian recovering from a ruined affair. Cleeves spent a great deal of time establishing this character only to kill her off later, which I thought a pity. The character added a modern twist to a traditional British cozy mystery and I thought it an excellent adaptation of a Miss Marple type. I do think a good central detective has to be somewhat removed from mainstream life—to have a differentness—that makes them see the world from angles most of us do not discern.

The real main character of what is now called Cleeves’ Shetland series, Perez, is the much-removed descendant of a shipwrecked Spaniard who settled on an outer island of the Shetland chain. In this latest of the series, Perez is a policeman on holiday with his fiancĂ©, and encounters skullduggery amongst birdwatchers staying in a lighthouse in the late fall season. I must admit my interest flagged a bit when the one reasonably capable character with interests outside of herself was killed off, but Cleeves brought enough havoc to the story to keep the action moving, even if some of the actions and motivations of some of the birders seemed unreasonable and hardly credible. The problem with mysteries is that the reader must believe in the story or one can simply dismiss it as so much twaddle. Cleeves ran close to the wind on this one, though I did think she had something good going with her middle-aged lesbian amateur detective. Perhaps she should start another series with this kind of character nosing about.

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Blind fury by Lynda LaPlante

Blind Fury (Anna Travis Mystery, #6)

I am a huge fan of Linda LaPlante, even though some of her work does not always reach the levels of her best work. Who's among us does? Once, after she’d directed a successful TV series, I saw some interviews with the actor stars. They said she did enormous amounts of research and followed real case developments closely in writing her own screenplays. Frankly, it shows. One of the best things about her dramas, whether for the reading, listening, or watching audience, is the authenticity of the voices. You know, (though you also fear, since she writes crime dramas) that these are the people one really has to work with: policemen and –women that struggle to grasp worlds outside of their own limited experience and education, brutal and unsympathetic sociopaths, fearful citizens that dread contact with police at the same time they rely on them for their safety. Put this together with the kismet of progress on a case—a fleeting thought, a chance encounter, a slip of the tongue that leads one to think in a new direction—and you have the beauty and skill of La Plante. She promises you nothing more than a reflection of our lives.

I listened to the audio of this title, read capably by Kim Hicks for AudioGo, copyright 2011. We are treated, not to a mystery that twists and turns in unexpected ways, nor presents a new suspect every chapter, but one which proceeds as one imagines a real case would proceed—building one piece of evidence upon another until the result is inescapable. Because we are so conditioned to reading mysteries with new suspects cropping up often, I posit we readers create our own doubts, and imagine more than is given us, developing the mystery into something more than is written. Blind Fury almost feels interactive, the way La Plante has written it.

This story begins with every police detective’s worst nightmare: with an unidentified body in a vacant lot. It ends with a conviction, and several people dead or destroyed. Our lead characters change and grow and learn right before our eyes, and ultimately we turn from the story with knowledge that weights us. Kudos to both La Plante and Hicks, both masters of voice.

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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Believing the Lie by Elizabeth George

Elizabeth George just gets richer and deeper in her character development and scene setups as her extensive oeuvre grows. While mystery series by other writers may develop to the point that plot or character begin to take on a sameness (haven’t we had this plot development before?), George’s series remind readers of the infinite variation in shades of light, of emotion, of personality, of murderous intent. In this latest addition to the Inspector Lynley series, George swerves into the “wildly improbable,” a phrase that she puts in the mouth and mind of more than one of her characters. That does not stop us from enjoying welcome news of the flawed but graceful Detective Inspector Lynley and his sidekick Barbara Havers, and their constantly changing personal lives and professional personae.

I listened to the audio of this title , read by Davina Porter. Porter also reads the Scotland Road series by Alexander McCall Smith, and has such a distinctive voice that cannot help but remember other things she has worked on. Porter is as skilled a reader as George is a writer, so the two are well-matched. It is a wild ride, this tale, and however improbable, George manages to keep us hanging on through Barbara Havers’ fashion makeover (!) and enough lies, misdirection, and wealthy-family weirdness to make one glad to be simply a proletariat.

This story unfolds in the Cumbrian region of Britain, cold and full of lakes, thick with history and veins of resentments. There is much sex, straight and otherwise, in this—enough to keep one’s eyes peeled wide (How on earth did she do her research into this? Reading the tabloids?)—but it makes me like George more…she seems like someone I’d like to meet. There is always a risk with crazy plots, but George is so competent that one knows she did it for a reason. It is a little, perhaps, tongue-in-cheek (what if the tabloids were true?), but she’s already proved her skill as far as I am concerned. Now George is just a friend helping us through withdrawal from missing some of our favorite characters, and her book is like a letter from a friend telling us what she thinks has become of them. Or what becomes them, in the case of Barbara Havers.

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Friday, March 2, 2012

Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World by Michael Lewis

Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World

Michael Lewis turns his curiosity on the wider world after the financial debacle of 2007 and the success of his book The Big Short . Here he attempts to answer a few questions: How did the crisis unravel overseas, what was the role of European banks, and how did governments and investors deal with the disaster? Then he returns home to America to look at state failures, California specifically, in the aftermath.

I listened to the Recorded Books edition of this book, and Lewis has a laugh in his voice as he reads, and he has chosen to share with us the most ridiculous examples of human credulity, greed, and wanton foolishness one can see anywhere. If one doesn’t laugh, one would have to cry, it is so pitiful. I wonder if voters anywhere will ever have the trust in government now they require to elect someone who can lead properly. The more we know, the more cynical we must become. Look at Greece, for goodness’ sakes. If you only have the faintest idea of what the situation is in Greece, and can’t really grasp why the people are demonstrating with such virulence, Lewis’ take is a helpful primer. Very clearly he tells us what’s going on. When you are done, you will probably wonder how this is going to play out. It surely makes it more interesting to watch the news.

Likewise, listening to recent news of California’s plan for high speed rail has much more depth when one knows what Lewis tells us about the state of California’s finances. It is amazing the state functions at all, and it does give one a bit of a burning sensation in the pit of one’s stomach when one thinks about the U.S. federal deficit. Read this, or better still, listen when you are doing something rote. It is amusing, informative, and makes you wiser.

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