Sunday, July 27, 2014

Beyond This Point are Monsters

Beyond This Point Are Monsters / Margaret Millar
New York: Random House, 1970.
213 p.

This mystery with the garish cover  is one I picked up used; I always buy Margaret Millar whenever I can find her, despite any weird covers (ack, the bad fonts!) and in nearly any condition -- she's so hard to come by! And that's a shame, because she is such an interesting writer.

This particular title, though, is probably not the strongest one I've read, but with Millar that still means it's pretty great. It's written as a look back at the facts of an event of a year ago: Robert Osborne went outside to get the dog, an hour later he hadn't returned, and in fact was never seen again. Evidence points to the Mexican labourers he had working on his ranch, but before he can be declared dead a year later, all the witnesses must come forward once again.

Devon, his young bride from the East Coast, is central to the story, as is his mother, a woman who is unable to accept that her son is really dead. As these two interact, we begin to see the cracks in the story, and the truth seeps through.

The structure of the book is set up as a courtroom drama: much of the action takes place as evidence is being given, or as people are preparing to give evidence. You get a sense of how the tension of the past year has affected the people involved, as they begin to show their stress. It was quite fascinating as a psychological character study; and yet, the story is so dated in regard to gender roles and expectations -- it's hard to remember the daily drudgery of such expectations, which are simply taken for granted in this tale. That's one of the things I find valuable about reading books written about their contemporary setting -- they reveal the basic assumptions that are so much a part of that setting that they aren't even stated. I think mysteries are specifically good at this, as they depend so much on what is 'normal' and what isn't in a society, in order to make clear what their unusual event is, and why is it unusual.

In any case, this book includes one more cracked mother who is completely codependent with her son, something that is slowly revealed as the story progresses, until the macabre Millar touch finishes it off. (as an aside, I find it interesting how often the books you choose to read, randomly, fall in with one another thematically; similar themes, tropes, character types etc. turn up one after another...)

The physical setting of this book is also well done. The parched California ranch, full of itinerant Mexican labourers, shimmers into view like a mirage in the heat, as Millar describes the neglect of the ranch and the vanishing of the suspected workers. She draws on small details to make the setting very real to the reader.

It's a rather slow-moving novel, for something described as a 'thriller' -- but I think it's more of a psychological tale with a mystery involved in it. The writing is accomplished, the characters are weirdly individual, the plot makes a kind of sense, and it has a definite atmosphere to it. Here's the "title drop", coming early on in the novel:
The world of maps is nice and flat and simple. It has areas for people and areas for monsters. What a shock it is to discover the world is round and the areas merge and nothing separates the monsters and ourselves; that we are all whirling around in space together and there isn't even a graceful way of falling off.
Take this hint, and be prepared for the unexpected. People are stranger than you think, and truth is sometimes not stranger than fiction...

Friday, July 25, 2014

Edith's Diary

3616991Edith's Diary / Patricia Highsmith
Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1982, c1977.
318 p.

Now here's one book that I read in the midst of my mystery mania that isn't really a mystery. It's a psychological study of one woman, Edith, whose diary reflects a much brighter world than the one she finds herself actually living in.

The concept is great-- I love diary fiction, I love unreliable narrators -- but the execution was mediocre. Edith's diary is incidental to the story, and as Edith writes in it, we see that she is making it all up; the reader is watching Edith imagine things, not wondering if what she's writing is true or not. It's not even clear if Edith really believes what she's writing or if she's simply being ironic (well, until near the end, anyhow, then it becomes clearer what's happening.)

Edith is a wife and mother of one son, a completely useless, obnoxious and creepy boy who grows up throughout the novel, from a 10 year old to an alcoholic adult child still living at home and taking advantage of the situation, even though it's clear that neither of his parents particularly likes him. Edith also ends up being the primary caregiver for her husband's elderly, ill, needy uncle who moves in with them as soon as they buy a house in the country. Meanwhile she is also expected to work as a newspaper writer and be involved in community groups and activities.

Halfway through, Edith's husband leaves her for a successful younger woman, and this throws her right off the rails. The tone, and the impetus for her break from reality, reminds me of another book I read a while ago, One Minus One by Ruth Doan MacDougall, incidentally also from the 70s. And perhaps it's just that off kilter 70s sensibility that I don't like. The woman are psychologically fragile and dependent for their very identity on the men in their lives, a theme that I just can't appreciate. This is actually one in a small series of titles I've just finished that all have women with absent husbands and codependent relationships with their sons as a major element. Maybe just too many all at once...

Plus, this book was simply too fragmented and depressing for me; at least I know now that I don't want to spend any more time in Patricia Highsmith's mind. Loneliness, alienation, addiction, and a really oppressive passivity permeate this novel. Not a read I enjoyed, even while feeling compelled to see it out to its end.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Murder on the Orient Express

Markham, ON: Pocket Books, 1974, c1934.
198 p.

What else can possibly said about this novel? It is as good as the majority of 3,755 reviewers on Goodreads think, and everyone I know who has read it has already told me.

But I just had to read a Christie for my summer mystery reading binge, and since I'd never actually read this previously, and it is another train mystery to follow on to The Wheel Spins, I picked it up, in this movie tie-in edition from 1974. And I greatly enjoyed it.

Somehow I'd never watched one of the movies, and hadn't had the denouement spoiled for me. It was an entertaining, well-structured novel about a long train ride from Stamboul to Paris (or Parrus, as the Americans aboard call it). Poirot just happens to be along by pure chance; he was returning from Syria with the intention to sight-see in Stamboul for a few days, but is called home by a telegram. His good friend M. Bouc who works for the railway, finds him a berth...and they're off.

Just as in The Wheel Spins, it's this unexpected extra passenger that puts a spoke in the wheel, so to speak. The conspirators must quickly reassess and decide what to do now that M. Poirot is along for the ride. After the introduction of  all the characters who make up the roster on the Calais coach, a murder occurs, ending the first part of the book. The second part follows along logically, as Poirot calls in each of the travellers for an interview. Each gives their version of events, and as there are no police to check up on any of their stories, Poirot must solve this one solely by the power of his 'little grey cells'.

The entertainment in this novel comes from the variety of intriguing characters that Christie has placed on this train. Each of them has some notable quirk or characteristic, or fascination for the others. Figuring out how these individuals interact and connect is Poirot's job, and at times his well-known foibles arise as well, sometimes in a very funny way.

For example, when the murder victim, Ratchett, is discovered, Poirot asks to speak to his young American secretary, Mr. MacQueen.The conversation goes as follows:

"What's up on the train? Has anything happened?"
Poirot nodded. "Exactly. Something has happened. Prepare yourself for a shock.Your employer, M. Ratchett, is dead!"
..."So they got him after all," he said. ...
"Your assumption was quite right. M. Ratchett was murdered. Stabbed. But I should like to know why you were so sure it was murder, and not just -- death."
MacQueen hesitated. "I must get this clear," he said. "Who exactly are you? And where do you come in?"
"I represent the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons Lits." Poirot paused, then added, "I am a detective. My name is Hercule Poirot."
If he expected an effect he did not get one. MacQueen said merely, "Oh! Yes?" and waited for him to go on.
"You know the name, perhaps?"
"Why, it does seem kind of familiar. Only I always thought it was a woman's dressmaker."
Hercule Poirot looked at him with distaste. "It is incredible!" he said.
"What's incredible?"
This is a really great read, engaging and puzzling with a good cast of characters -- it all depends on them, as the setting is very limited indeed, nearly all taking place in one coach of the train. It was well worth finally reading for myself even if I felt like I already knew about it by osmosis. There was still lots to surprise me, and the process of reading it was so satisfying. Another addition to recommended summer reading; Christie is a classic for good reason.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Beggar's Choice

Beggar's Choice / Patricia Wentworth
New York: Time Warner, 1990, c1931.
252 p.

This was another very entertaining summer mystery -- which I've had on my shelf for years! It looks like a modern paperback, which is probably why I'd overlooked it for so long, but it is actually a classic 30's story, full of mistaken identities, inheritances and jealous women seeking revenge.

Car Fairfax is down on his luck, with many wry observations about how his upper class friends don't know him anymore -- and how he feels uncomfortable forcing them to acknowledge him in his neediness. Because of this, he also distances himself from Isobel, the only girl he's ever loved (and who still loves him, but is apparently not given a choice in the matter of his noble decision).

Car's on his last legs when he is offered a very strange job via a flyer thrust at him on the street. He takes a weekly salary apparently to dine in fancy restaurants and look well off. Of course his world is very small, and so he invites his cousin Anna (who he had rejected romantically in favour of Isobel long ago) to dine with him. And at that restaurant he runs into just about everyone he knows.

It gets more complicated from there; his cousin Anna is a vengeful woman, seeking her just desserts for his earlier rejection. Since she knows some pretty shady people, things get serious. Car is being framed for theft, B&E, and drug possession. The quiet man he meets in the dark to get new assignments for his "job" offers him the chance to knock off his uncle (who had disinherited him) for the money.

But Car hasn't sunk that low. He still has standards, and indignantly refuses. Upon his return home, he discovers that the police are after him for various crimes, and leaps out of the skylight and across roofs to escape...there follows a wild rooftop chase...then Car drops through another skylight and ends up slipping into an old woman's room... which is one of the funniest moments of the book.

The old woman doesn't scream or even look up. Instead she asks him if he knows a 9 letter word for "a dark knight of Sir Arthur's Court" When he does, she triumphantly fills in her crossword and orders him to hide in the wardrobe.

The story continues, and of course all comes clear in the end. There are lots of elements to this book -- lots of period detail and interest -- and although it involves drugs and attempted murder it's not at all hard-boiled. I appreciate that there is humour in it even while desperate things occur. This is the first Wentworth mystery I've read, and I enjoyed doing so. Light but recommended for a fun period read.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

The Wheel Spins, or, The Lady Vanishes

The Wheel Spins / Ethel Lina White
London: Penguin, 1956, c1936.
191 p.

It's summertime. The weather is wonderful, not too hot or humid, and I have time to relax outside. So all I feel like reading is my stack of classic mysteries.

This is one that I've been meaning to pick up for a while now -- it's the basis for the Hitchcock film, The Lady Vanishes. I enjoy that film and have heard that the book is slightly different. I can now say that there are some significant differences between the two!

If you know the movie, you'll find the opening familiar but as it goes along, the plot and especially the character of Miss Froy differ quite a lot. But I enjoyed both the movie and the book. One of the elements that I love is the fact that it's a train mystery, with most of the action taking place in the claustrophobic last train home of the season, from the tiny unnamed European resort that our main character Iris has been staying at with a huge group of raucous friends. Iris has decided to stay behind after they all moved on, but quickly decides it's boring by herself; thus she's completely alone as she heads home.

From the moment she decides to catch this train, nothing goes right. From heat stroke (or something more malicious?) at the station -- nearly missing her train -- getting stuck into a carriage full of strange people -- meeting Miss Froy -- missing Miss Froy -- and then having all the strange people deny that Miss Froy ever existed... Iris is having a bad day.

The rest of the story investigates both why Miss Froy might be a target, and what might have happened to her, and the effect of the denial of reality on Iris' precarious mental state. Iris does not give in to every single other person's insistence that she was imagining Miss Froy, that she is a young hysteric, but determinedly and fixedly believes in her own perceptions. While this situation, added to her original illness, begins to unhinge her, she holds on to that core belief in herself. I found this very powerful. Given that she is proven right in the end, I felt that her character, while flimsy and flippant in the beginning, has been strengthened by this trial. Her character might actually have a chance to become someone in future.

White's characterizations, both of Iris and her friends, and of all the fellow passengers who are drawn in to the denial of Miss Froy for their own various reasons, are fascinating. She examines why people decide to participate in this lie, and how much self-interest affects one's moral ground. Add some suspense, some fun plotting, and enjoyable writing, and this book is truly a great summer read.

The main difference between the book and movie lies in Miss Froy herself. While in the movie Miss Froy is an intrepid English agent, in the book she is what she appears to be... a talkative English nanny who has simply got herself into the wrong place at the wrong time. A nice touch throughout the book is the vision of her parents waiting for her to arrive home for her vacation; they flesh out the rather tiresome and dull Miss Froy herself and create much more sympathy for and understanding of a character who spends much of her time literally missing from the picture.

If you like mysteries from the 30's, or have enjoyed the Hitchock film, do give this a try. It was a truly entertaining read with some very interesting psychological angles as well.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Canada Day!

In these parts it was a holiday yesterday, a national holiday to celebrate Canada Day!

I sat outside and read, and drank red cocktails, and then worked on some sewing a bit later on in the day...all in all, a very relaxing break. Cheers everyone!

I was in such holiday mood that I didn't even turn on the computer yesterday, thus my Canadian Book Challenge 8  post is coming to you a day late. But still oh, so, Canadian!

John at the Book Mine Set created and has been hosting the Canadian Book Challenge since its inception, and it's always great fun. I've been doing it each year, and I still find Canadian titles new to me thanks to the other readers. It runs July 1 - July 1, and it's always fun to begin a new challenge in the middle of the year!

The "challenge" part of it is to read and review 13 Canadian books -- originally it was one from each province, thus the number 13. But these days anything goes! If you read 13 books, you reach the finish line -- read John's full instructions for all the details.

For version 7, I read and reviewed 41 books. For this upcoming year, I'm challenging myself to beat that total. Plus I'm going to carry on with my attempt to make 13 of my reads epistolary novels -- I'll allow myself rereads but am open to any suggestions -- please share if you have a favourite Canadian epistolary novel.

Happy (late) Canada Day and hope you are all planning a luxurious summer of reading.

Friday, June 27, 2014

This Post Brought to You by the Letter...

Simon at Stuck in A Book shared a fun meme this week, detailing some of his favourite creative things 'by the letter' -- and encouraged readers to leave a comment if they wanted to play along. I jumped in and was assigned the letter N.

So here are my favourite things... starting with N.

Favourite book...

What else could it be, of course it has to be Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen! As a former history/literature student I love this quote:

But history, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in. Can you?”
“Yes, I am fond of history.”
“I wish I were too. I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all — it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. The speeches that are put into the heroes’ mouths, their thoughts and designs — the chief of all this must be invention, and invention is what delights me in other books.”

Favourite author...
Edith Nesbit

I'm going back to childhood here and saying Edith Nesbit -- 5 Children and It was a repeated reread for me in my younger years -- I even had my wishes all sorted out just in case I ever ran across a psammead!

Favourite song...

Puccini's Nessun Dorma sung by Pavarotti. Glorious.

Favourite film...

eNchanted April

 (I am cheating a bit but this is my favourite movie, and the only N I could think of!)

Favourite object...

 I can't seem to think of a solid N favourite, but I'll share an N that I enjoy --

Otherwise known as the string of &#@%*#@*!$@*! in comic books :)

Not only does it entertain me that this implied string of swearing has a name, that name makes a perfectly good swear word in itself. Try it, it has the perfect combination of hard sounds and compression of meaning.


Well, N was a tough letter but I enjoyed this exercise! Check out Simon's post for all the others who played along and see their lettered choices too.