(I’ve decided to start classifying my reviews a little more finely: New To Me is my category for books I’ve only just read that have been out for a while, whether “a while” means “a year or two” or “several decades/centuries.”)
Where I got it and why: the local library, as the last of the Lord Peter Wimsey series
Recommended? Yes, to all fans of mystery and romance both.
Review: “It has been said, by myself and others, that a love-interest is only an intrusion upon a detective story,” Sayers says in the dedication. “But to the characters involved, the detective-interest might well seem an irritating intrusion upon their love-story.” And that is exactly what happens here.
Lord Peter and the new Lady Peter, previously Miss Harriet Vane, have gone off to the country on their honeymoon. Peter has purchased an old Tudor manor-house for Harriet as a wedding present, and they move in in the middle of the night, having narrowly escaped floods of newspaper reporters. The house has not been aired, food has not been brought in, the chimneys have not been swept, but they topple into bed to deal with it in the morning. And in the morning, they discover a body in the basement – but not before having the housekeeper and the chimneysweep in, neatly destroying most of the potential clues.
I admit, I was a little worried at about a third of the way through the book. Large portions of it are from Harriet’s point of view, and she was having a difficult time juggling the demands of honeymoon and of a detecting husband all at the same time. I was afraid she was going to go all feminine and wifely. But she recognizes the impulse and throws it away, in one of the most wonderful scenes I have ever read. (And Lord Peter, being the wonderful person that he is, recognizes her achievement and is suitably humbled.)
This is very much a book about a romance. Just because the characters are already together doesn’t mean there’s no tension — the tension they’re dealing with is how to remain true to themselves while being married and madly in love, rather than the will they/won’t they tension of most romance stories. Of course they will; they are. (There’s a hilarious scene of double entendre toward the beginning with one of the new neighbors.) The question is, though, once you’ve fallen madly in love with someone, do you continue to treat them like a person or do you start to treat them like a fragile and precious object? And what happens to you if you do?
My favorite part about this book, though, was the ending. Once the murderer has been caught, there’s still the trial and execution to deal with. We’ve seen in earlier books that Peter doesn’t deal with that part well; he likes the investigation but he hates the fact that he, personally, is responsible for people being hanged. This is just the first time that we see his reactions in detail, and it’s heartbreaking and wonderful. Wonderful, of course, because now he has Harriet for support. I know there are more books in this series, finished from Sayers’ notes by Jill Paton Walsh, but this was such a perfect end to the series I don’t know that I’ll read them.
Where I got it and why: From the library, on the strength of a recommendation from bookshelves of doom.
Recommended? If you’re a fan of noir detective stories or high school settings – crazy high school settings.
Review: It took me until I was at least five chapters in to decide I actually liked this book, and I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about it. Partly I think that’s because it’s set in a kind of weird high school alternate universe dystopia: all the cliques are running rackets, even the teachers are in on it, and everybody takes a teenage private dick perfectly seriously. I found it hard to get settled in to the book, not knowing what kind of reality we were in. (Maybe I just read too much SF, and if I didn’t it would have been easier.) It was sure as hell fun, though.
Dalton Rev is a private detective, and he’s transferred into Salt River High to investigate the death of Wesley Payne, one of the only kids in the school who wasn’t involved with some racket or another. Everyone says it’s suicide – everyone but Wesley’s sister Macy, who’s Dalton’s client. (Private Dick Handbook, Rule #12 – Never get involved with a client. You know, that rule that gets broken every time.)
And from there it’s one noir fiction cliche after another, with snappy dialogue and crazy slang, double-crosses, mysterious motives, femmes fatale, and more intrigue than you can shake a reasonably large stick at. It was fantastic. I had a hard time remembering this was supposed to be a YA novel, actually; the references to old noir came fast and thick. (I was amused to discover that, although there is a glossary in the back, defining the slang and interpreting most of the references, there is no entry for Bogie. Not that Bogie needs interpretation, mind.)
Weirdly enough, the book this reminded me most of was Jo Walton’s Among Others. There’s the same sense that, although the narrator presents everything as fully real, there’s a possibility that the fantastic elements are actually a figment of the main character’s imagination, that what you’re reading is the complex narrative of a teenager attempting to cope. They’d be an interesting pair of books to read one after the other, I think.
Where I got it and why: Library. I actually picked this up at the same time as Strong Poison, because I was under the strange impression it was the next one. Oops.
Recommended? Oh my god, yes, to everyone in the world. Women and scholars and mystery fans and romance fans and everyone.
Review: This book, you guys, THIS BOOK. I finished it almost a week ago and have not been able to write my review about it until now because all I can think to say is THIS BOOK. This book is amazing.
Harriet Vane was introduced to the Lord Peter Wimsey series in Strong Poison, returned in Have His Carcase, and has her time to shine here in Gaudy Night. She’s been invited to her Oxford college’s Gaudy, a sort of reunion weekend, and when she gets there she finds (as you do) that everything is exactly the same and everything has changed. She no longer has much in common with her old best friend, but her old professors are as delightful as ever. The college is still filled with students, younger and more modern but with much the same problems. Oh, and someone is sending horrible threatening letters to students and faculty and wreaking havoc whenever possible.
This is most definitely a mystery novel, but it’s also a deeply feminist novel. The whole thing is from Harriet’s point of view, as she contemplates returning to academia, her career as a mystery novelist, her obligation to investigate the crimes at the college on behalf of a faculty who’s terrified of what the bad publicity would do to one of the few women’s colleges in existence, and her potential romance with Lord Peter Wimsey. The plot keeps the whole thing going with plenty of suspense, but it’s the depth and intelligence of Harriet that makes this one of the best books I’ve ever read.
I’m often disappointed when I read period feminist books, not because of anything to do with the book most times but because I’m disappointed that it still seems so relevant today. Surely feminism ought to have progressed since 1935? I don’t feel that way about Gaudy Night, though, and I think part of the reason is that the book is feminist because of its subject matter, but it deals with issues that everyone ought to care about, but seem to become women’s issues by default. The question of what happens when professional standards and ethics intersect with family and romantic interests is a very different one when applied to men than when it’s applied to women.
Also, I am not ashamed to admit that I squeed like a fifteen-year-old fangirl at all of the scenes with Harriet and Peter together. Punting! Picnicking! Reading one another’s books! Discussing literature! I do believe they have one of my favorite relationships in fiction, and I cannot wait to start Busman’s Honeymoon when they will both finally agree with me.
I am just plowing through this series, aided by the wonderful observations of Sarah Monette. (Be warned, the commentary is full of spoilers, which are mostly but not all warned for.) So most of my comments on Have His Carcase are derived from the discussions over there.
One of the most interesting things about the Lord Peter Wimsey series is the way it develops, from being fairly straightforward Golden Age mysteries (think Agatha Christie) to being much more complex novels that also happen to be mysteries. This book is all about the difference between formula mysteries, novels, and real life; the novel opens with mystery writer Harriet Vane (who is clearly based on Parker herself) discovering a body on the beach, after all.
And the novel progresses from there, weaving back and forth between the mystery plot and the ongoing plot about Harriet’s relationship with Lord Peter. And in amongst all the worrying about motives and times (timing is very important in this book) and making up stories about how the victim might possibly have been killed, there is this wonderful scene with the two of them. It’s heartwrenching, and wonderful, and tremendously realistic. It would seem out of place in one of the earlier Wimsey books; here it fits, but only just.
I am promised that this trend continues with Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon, and I cannot wait.
Source: public library, local branch this time (this series is spread all over the system…)
Also read: Dorothy L. Sayers’s The Five Red Herrings, a classic Golden Age mystery based entirely around the complexities of train schedules. (I am reading them in order, however much I miss Harriet when she’s not there.) Which I did not enjoy nearly as much, sorry.
Pat Brown, The Profiler
As you know, Bob, I have both a ridiculous fascination with true crime stories and a distaste for sensationalizing, victim-blaming crap. Profiling books are the best of both worlds: lots of serial killers, little to no sensationalizing crap. Pat Brown is a self-made profiler: she started when she became convinced that a boarder in her house had killed a girl in her hometown. Now she’s a successful private detective and independent profiler. I have to compare her book to John Douglas’s, since I’ve read so many of his, and the biggest contrast I found was that Douglas refuses to talk about cases that haven’t been closed. He only names killers he’s profiled where the case ended in a conviction. None of Brown’s cases (that she talked about in the book) ended in conviction; most of them didn’t even end with the arrest of the person she names as the probable killer. I can see the ethical arguments behind both approaches, and it’s an issue I’m glad I don’t have to deal with personally.
Dorothy L. Sayers, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
I think this is where the series really starts to get its feet under itself. This is a book with themes, with a solid and complex mystery, and with a truly impressive cast of characters. (I did miss Miss Climpson, though.) General Fentiman is found dead in his club on Armistice Day (which must have been a much different thing in 1928 than it is now) and a large inheritance turns upon the exact time of his death, which Lord Peter investigates (until he is investigating, of course, the murder). It’s very much a book about the aftereffects of the War; nearly all the members of the club are veterans, but the younger men who served in the Great War have a vastly different perspective than their older colleagues (and ancestors — one of the most interesting characters is George Fentiman, the General’s grandson, who suffers spectacularly from shell-shock).
Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon
I am absolutely astounded at how close the movie is to the book in almost every way. Of course, Hammett’s dialogue is incredible, why wouldn’t you lift it directly? (I noticed the same thing in the film version of The Thin Man.) The plot gets a little twistier in the book in the last half, but it’s definitely one of the most faithful film adaptations I’ve ever seen. …Sorry, this is a book review, not a film review. Hammett practically invented the hard-boiled detective genre with this book, and while Chandler and many others have done it differently, I’m not sure you could say they’ve done it better. It’s not so much the mystery that’s compelling in this book – by halfway through all the players have been introduced and there’s no real question of who killed Archer and Thursby – but the way Sam Spade plays with the other characters. He’s profoundly in control of himself, in the face of two of the most profound (and classic noir) temptations: sex and money. But then, as he says, when a guy’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it.
Paul Meehan, Horror Noir
A poorly written but (as far as I can tell) thorough overview of the confluence of two of my favorite movie genres, horror and film noir. Because what I need is more movies to watch. (A couple of months ago I checked out the wonderful Film Noir Encyclopedia from the library and ended up with a list of over two hundred movies that I needed to see. And those are just the ones rated four-star and above.) Meehan’s real interest is obviously in the early days of the genre, so I’m not sure why the chapters covering 1960 and on are even there, but the first half of the book is fascinating, if poorly copy-edited.
Dorothy L. Sayers, Whose Body?
So I decided to go back to the beginning and read the Lord Peter Wimsey stories in order. I got the first three novels in an omnibus edition, which I adore, because then I can go straight from one to the next without stopping. And why stop? The characters are all wonderful, and in a delightful change from the mysteries I usually read, the murders themselves are genuinely mysterious. It is the characters that you really read a mystery series for, though. And I love them all, Lord Peter and Parker and Bunter and The Hon. Freddy, who reads like an escapee from a Wodehouse novel and is played by a young Ronald Reagan in my head.
Dorothy L. Sayers, Clouds of Witness
And now, Lord Peter’s family! They’re all as delightful as you’d expect, from his mother (who actually is delightful) to his siblings (who are not, really they’re entertaining in the way that British peers tend to be, all stuffy and ridiculous). …Which is mostly what I remember from this book, Peter’s brother being stuffy and ridiculous, and his sister being infinitely silly, and the fun of reading a book featuring a Communist club that was written in the 1920s. History is always more interesting from the inside out.
Dorothy L. Sayers, Unnatural Death
Yet another weird mystery, in which Lord Peter is determined to prove that a murder actually happened (and feels guilty about indirectly causing a few more along the way). The highlight of this book is Miss Climpson, a spinster hired by Lord Peter because, as he says, it’s a shame to let all that natural inquisitiveness go to waste. And it would be, Miss Climpson is amazing. And she does crack the case independently; it’s hardly her fault that none of her messages made it to Lord Peter in time.
James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice
Working my way through the classics of noir fiction. This is a tight little novel, fairly horrible in a lot of ways, but then again, it’s noir. (When I say horrible, I mean, of course, the subject matter, not the writing. The writing is…well, this book could have been twice as long, but it wouldn’t have been half as good.)
Barbara Sher, Wishcraft
Yes, I read a self-help book. It was recommended to me, and I found it legitimately online. I was rather surprised to discover I’d independently invented most of her motivational tricks, but the part of the book I liked the best was the first three chapters or so, the part where she explains you have every right to have the things you actually want, even if you’ve been so messed up about it for so long you’re not sure what those are any more.
Rex Stout, The Rubber Band
After the James Cain, I required something noirish with a slightly less icky attitude toward women. Rex Stout is always good for that; he very rarely has femmes fatales, most of the women in his books are either flat-out useless or clever and helpful. (The female lead in this one is the latter.)
Erin Bow, Plain Kate
Another YA from my trip to ALA last year (yes, I know, it’s been almost a year and I haven’t finished reading my ARCs!…) This was a wonderful fairy tale of a story – a proper fairy tale, that’s mostly about blood and death and revenge, with one of those scrupulously fair endings that doesn’t quite make anyone happy. That makes it sound rather depressing, which it’s not: it’s a very hopeful story, overall, about discovering your own strength. Also, the most realistic talking cat I have ever seen in fiction.
Carl Elliott, White Coat, Black Hat
Another medical industry expose. I appear to be addicted to them. This book is primarily focused not on any particular travesty – although he is fond of blaming Big Pharma for most of the problems with contemporary medicine – but on the overall shape of modern medicine, with all its capitalism and competition, as a problem itself. As Elliott points out, science is based on trust; scientific discoveries have to be shared in order to make new discoveries rather than wasting your time making the same discovery someone else already has. But with the profit-driven pharmaceutical and medical industries, sharing means losing your patent and your profit margin. It’s just not a good way to run a system that’s supposed to be saving people’s lives.
Raymond Chandler, The Little Sister
I like the beginning and the end of this book, but the middle leaves a bad taste in my mouth. There are a couple of scenes where Marlowe has these…confrontations with women he’s trying to help, where the overwhelming sense of the scene is “why won’t these bitches be appropriately grateful?” Appropriately is the key word there; it isn’t that he wants to sleep with them (I still think Marlowe is gay) but that they’re throwing themselves at him and he’s repulsed. It’s a nasty kind of misogyny, and I don’t like it. The end, though, is classic Chandler and extremely satisfying, particularly in the way that Marlowe clearly doesn’t quite understand what’s going on here.
Jo Walton, Among Others
The library copy I got was shelved in the general fiction rather than the science fiction section. I cannot for the life of me imagine why, because I’m not sure I see the point of reading this book unless you’re at least a little familiar with science fiction and fandom. Also, there are fairies. Not metaphorical ones, real ones, that are arbitrary and helpful and thoughtlessly cruel. Wonderful fairies. If you are at all fond of fairies, or science fiction, or Wales: Go. Read. Now.
Dorothy L. Sayers, The Nine Tailors
Well, I was on a detective novel kick, and I hadn’t read any Lord Peter yet, and anyway it was this or Poirot at the Cross Plains library. Also Mor was talking about Peter and Harriet in Among Others. No Harriet in this one, but I am now thoroughly fond of Lord Peter and shall be seeking out the rest of the series as quickly as possible. (Omnibus edition is on its way as we speak!)
Raymond Chandler, The High Window
There is something vaguely unnatural about Raymond Chandler novels. Although they’re generally very bleak, being noir detective stories with a greater than usual dose of personal trauma above and beyond the murder-for-money motives, I tend to read them through with a huge grin on my face. I know what it is, it’s the constant wisecracking and world-weary self-aware irony of Philip Marlowe. I still find it vaguely unnatural. But I adore them nonetheless.
Dashiell Hammett, The Thin Man
Despite my love of noir (and I have been indulging it greatly the past few weeks, I should post a list of the movies I’ve been watching, too), I have never before actually read any Dashiell Hammett. But I grabbed a copy of The Thin Man while stocking up on Bogie movies at the library last week, and I adored it. It’s not as gritty as Chandler, but Nick and Nora are wonderful, as are all the minor characters. (I was surprised at how much I ended up liking Gilbert, the morbid teenager; his fascination with cannibalism was what cemented it for me, I think.) It’s a pity Hammett didn’t do sequels, I’d love to read more of them. Perhaps I will investigate the movies.
Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time
This is the best book about invalids doing research that I have ever read. Okay, that sounds like damning with faint praise. I loved it. A Scotland Yard investigator is laid up in the hospital and decides to try to figure out just what the hell Richard III was doing, murdering the princes in the Tower, and comes to the surprising conclusion that he wasn’t. It’s all the best parts of doing historical research without any of the boring bits. Not a strictly noir mystery, except for the way that the accused doesn’t manage to regain his besmirched reputation — which might be close enough, actually — but extremely satisfying nonetheless.
Steven Brust, Tiassa
And a break from the detective stories for the latest Vlad novel! I have to say, I know he’s cranking these out at one a year, but it’s still not fast enough for me. I’ll just have to be grateful for what we get. Unlike last year’s Iorich, I think this would be a great introduction to the Vlad stories. You get a little bit of all the main characters (except for Morrolan, he’s been strangely absent for a while) and a little bit of each of the narrative styles: first-person Vlad POV, third person straight narrative, and Paarfi. The story itself is easy to follow if you don’t know all the background, but there’ll be plenty in there you’ll still want to find out about, to make sure you go back and read the other novels. But then, how could you not?