I don’t have much time to talk about the books I’ve read this year, but I don’t want to leave them completely unmentioned, so here are a few words about the ones I haven’t covered yet.
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Murder on the Orient Express isn’t one of Christie’s best. I read it a while ago, but as I recall, the description is terse, the formula obvious, and the dialogue rather dull and procedural. But the setting is perfect (a snowbound train), the murder itself is interesting, and of course, Hercule Poirot is as awesome as ever. A must-read for fans of Christie and fans of the genre but perhaps not for others.
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
Because I look up to authors, I expect them to be older than I. Paul Murray is actually younger. Younger, but perhaps wiser. Certainly a better writer. He really knows his way around a simile, and when he describes a thing, you see it, hear it, feel it. I can’t remember ever admiring anyone’s prose more.
The premise of Skippy Dies is simple. A young student at a Catholic boarding school dies. Then the author tells you how it came to be so.
Though Skippy Dies is advertised as a comedy, it is at heart a tragedy, a sad story filled with drugs, violence, and sexual abuse. Because of that, I cannot recommend it for all, but for those who can stomach reading about the darker side of modern life, this is a rich, beautifully described story with memorable characters.
A Share in Death and Leave the Grave Green by Deborah Crombie
Grade: B- for each
I am very conscious of the fact that authors are real people and that criticism sometimes hurts, even when it comes from complete strangers, and even when those strangers are not necessarily qualified to make such judgments. So I’ll say sorry in advance. (Sorry!)
With all due respect for the author’s success, I don’t think this series is very good. My expectations were high, having heard of Crombie’s mystery series, of which A Share in Death is the first book, from another blogger with an intense love of reading and a fondness for mysteries in particular. Those high expectations might have been part of the problem. Having just read Skippy Dies, which might be one of those books that stands the test of time and is eventually hailed as a classic, probably didn’t help either.
The writing is tolerable but not great. Many descriptions (particularly the descriptions of various car trips) sound like they were created using an atlas or other reference material. I also had the hardest time separating my irritation over a particular scene in A Share in Death from my opinion of the book as a whole. In that scene, the detective goes to a suspect’s apartment to question her again, and he finds her disheveled and upset. Her lover had just previously struck her in the face and forced sex on her. She repeatedly states that she was not a willing participant. In my book, that’s assault and rape. You’d think that one of Scotland Yard’s superintendents would at least tell the woman that she has the right to press charges against her assailant. Or counsel her to go to the hospital. But no, he just continues with his line of questioning and then leaves. That’s not right, not morally, and not given his profession. And it is especially jarring because he’s ordinarily so incredibly touchy-feely.
Who is this this detective, this Duncan Kinkaid? I don’t know. The author frequently describes his clothes and his car but rarely gives us any solid character traits for us to latch onto. I cannot envision him. I cannot appreciate his method (for he seems to have none but the basic “run around and ask a lot of questions” technique). I cannot laugh at him or see myself in him. The only things I remember about him are that he’s young (unusually young for a Scotland Yard superintendent), he’s divorced, he likes beer, he thinks about his feelings quite often, and he falls for women easily.
If you’re going to base a whole series of books on one particular character, it had better be a strong character! Hercule Poirot was a Belgian with peculiar habits, a glorious mustache, extreme vanity, and a firm belief in the power of the “little grey cells.” He was unique, interesting, memorable. Miss Marple was a busybody, an expert on village life, a woman with a keen understanding of human nature. No one expected that little old lady to know anything, but she was unexpectedly clever and therefore memorable. Duncan Kinkaid is not memorable (his sergeant is a little memorable—too bad she turns into a nitwit when she falls for him romantically).
If Crombie, in dwelling on Kinkaid’s outfits, had at least given him an article of clothing as unique as Indiana Jones’s hat or, more aptly, Columbo’s raincoat, then it would be relevant and interesting. But unless he’s wearing something special, I couldn’t care less about his wardrobe. And that time when he got turned on by one of the suspects and wished he had been wearing pants that would better camouflage his erection? Ugh.
In desperate need for a simple, easily-devoured book, I finished the first novel, enjoying it just barely enough to continue to a second (Leave the Grave Green). The second was no better. I tried to read the next one after that but couldn’t take the rapid nosedive into cheesy-romance-novel territory. It was beyond redemption within the first 50 pages. Ugh again. That book plus a fourth, both of which I borrowed from the library “just in case,” will go back unread.
Is it possible that 99% of mysteries are poorly written? Because having encountered so many bad ones, I’m beginning to wonder.
The Wonderful O by James Thurber
Clever, clever, clever. No one was cleverer than James Thurber. He had an amazing ear for language, and his children’s books are both well-crafted and unique. The Wonderful O is as clever as any of his books, perhaps too much so. After a while, the wordplay disrupts the flow of the story to the point that it gets a little tedious. Still, a remarkable book, definitely worth reading for fans of Thurber and those who love language and wordplay.
Small Steps by Louis Sachar
I loved Holes, an earlier novel of Sachar’s. Small Steps is not quite a sequel, but it does feature a couple of characters from that book. I therefore expected it to have the magic of Holes. It didn’t.
Here’s what happens. The main character, Armpit, mishears the lyrics of a pop song. He thinks it sounds like the singer is asking for his help. He ends up meeting the singer and eventually she does need his help.
If Sachar had managed to focus on the magic in that idea (and it is there), he could have woven it through the novel as he did in Holes. But he didn’t and the results are poor. I don’t recommend this book.