City of Endless Night

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I enjoyed reading City of Endless Night, the latest Preston and Child mystery featuring FBI agent Aloysius Pendergast, but I’m not sure it lived up to the claim by one reviewer that it’s the best of the series, which now numbers seventeen books.

The authors have a winning formula that continues to entertain.  They have an attractive and interesting protagonist in agent Pendergast.  The characters in the supporting cast are well developed, from police detective Vincent D’Agosta, who works with Pendergast, to annoying reporter Bryce Harriman.  They provide detailed settings, in this case locations in and around New York City.  There is plenty of extreme action and suspense.

But there are pitfalls to writing so many books with the same framework, and one of them is the strain on originality.  There is a religious fanatic in this book who provides a similar subplot to one previously used, and is even neutralized by the same policewoman.  The tendency for anyone who is connected to Pendergast to die a gruesome death has reached an appalling level.   And although the agent is an almost-super hero, the ploy that saves him in his final confrontation with the villain is too far fetched even for him.

There is clearly going to be another book in the series, and I look forward to finding out if there are any strange plot permutations left in Preston and Child’s bag of tricks.

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Great Writers are Great Psychologists

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Great writers are great psychologists.  Aside from command of language, imagination, etc., the best writers have the ability to submerge their own personalities completely and create consistent characters wholly unlike themselves.  In the second rank of talented writers who don’t pretend to be great are those with likable personalities that come through to readers and help to make their books enjoyable.

Dick Francis is an example of the latter, a good writer whose kind, brave, and gentlemanly personality shines through and makes the reader care about his heroes.  As shown by “Triple Crown”, published by Felix Francis in 2016, Felix, who was a co-writer on his father’s later books, doesn’t quite come up to the mark.  Of course he’s a generation younger, but his updating of the formula doesn’t add anything worthwhile.  He abandons his father’s old fashioned sensibilities regarding coarse language and bathroom humor, to no positive result. The one major female character has sex appeal but no personality, and protagonist Jeff Hinkley isn’t particularly admirable or likable.

One good quality of the Dick Francis books that Felix has adopted is doing his homework.  Dick Francis was able to speak knowledgeably about horse racing and training, newspaper writing, and running a charter air company, but often chose other lines of work for his protagonists, always learning enough about them to be convincing.  For Triple Crown, Felix Francis has learned a lot about the transmission and effects of equine viruses.

The plot takes British Horseracing Authority investigator Hinkley to the U.S. to hunt corruption in the competition for the Triple Crown, and is quite good.

Note:

Mystery Time will be offered as a free Kindle book on Amazon from June 26th to June 30th.  In this Alex Kertész mystery, a colleague dies in Alex’s arms at a biochemistry congress in Prague and an old watch may have mysterious powers.

Two Good Books

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It’s a pleasure to read books by experienced, masterful story tellers.  Here are two.

Daniel Silva published “The Black Widow” in 2016.  It’s so up to date that he feels the need to explain that the linking of Islamic terrorists to the Brussels district of Molenbeek in the book was coincidental.  The attacks in Paris and Brussels that were indeed carried out by residents of Molenbeek occurred after the book was written.  It’s the type of coincidence that results from a thorough study of the relevant places and political situations and makes for a convincing plot.

The black widow of the title is a young woman who seeks revenge against the Western powers after her fiance is killed fighting in Syria.  There are such young women, but in this case she’s an Arabic-speaking Israeli who is sent undercover to identify a terrorist mastermind known only as Saladin.

 

The Dying Detective, published by Leif G.W. Persson, also in 2016, shows that my decision to avoid Scandinavian authors was too hasty.  As the title indicates, the  story isn’t especially cheerful, but it isn’t permeated by gloom as are some other books I’ve read by Scandinavian writers.  Perhaps because Persson is a criminologist, his plot is long on following trails of evidence and police work, and short on creating a depressing atmosphere.  He has considerately set the action in the months June to September, so we aren’t forced to accompany the characters on interminable slogs through snow.

The  eponymous Stockholm detective is a sixty-seven year old retiree who is given a clue to the solution of a cold case while in the hospital recovering from a mild stroke.  Although the criminal raped and murdered a child, the case is subject to a statute of limitations that wasn’t modified in time for this murderer to be prosecuted, even if he’s identified.  But since Johansson’s time is now his own, he can delve into whatever interests him, and his old friends and colleagues are willing and able to help him.

Johansson hails from the north, but instead of taking advantage of this connection to immerse the reader in the usual horrors of a northern climate, Persson merely reminds us that it’s important for Johansson to have full use of his right arm in time for elk hunting season.

The Shape of Water

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The Shape of Water is called a novel of food, wine, and homicide in small town Sicily.  Published in Italian in 1994 by Andrea Camilleri, it was translated into English in 2002.

It was refreshing to read about a detective who quickly plans a meal of pasta with garlic and olive oil for an acquaintance who drops in unexpectedly.  I’m more used to American or British authors who seem to think that not knowing how to boil water makes a male character appealing.   As a corollary to being culinarily challenged, these heroes tend to live in squalor, surrounded by old take-out food containers.  How could anyone fail to be charmed?  Unfortunately, there was much more homicide than food and wine in this book.  It would have been interesting to hear more about what the Sicilians eat and how they prepare it.

The plot is convoluted, involving many local big-shots, most of them corrupt.  Corrupt authorities are generally treated with great seriousness in the mysteries I read, but Camilleri’s Sicilians are so used to it that it’s become one big joke.  It’s the rare honest public servant who is treated seriously.

 

Co-Authorship

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I used to avoid books by two authors, thinking that they would be like factory products, written to formula.  They couldn’t have the uniform vision of a book created by one person.  Well, that was silly.  Mysteries and thrillers, even good ones, are not generally great works of literature and after picking up a couple of co-authored books without noticing the double attribution, I realized that they were neither better nor worse than books by a single author.

The Book of the Dead, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, is a good example of  successful co-authorship.  These two have written a series of novels together, and I happened to read the last one (as of 2006) in a set featuring Special Agent Pendergast and several other recurring characters.  I enjoyed it enough to go back and read The Relic, the book in which he was introduced, but I don’t think I’ll read any more of them.  Whether because he was in effect created by a committee or for some other reason, in my opinion Agent Pendergast doesn’t come to life sufficiently to support a series of books.

The plots of the books I read were interesting and took advantage of the interests of both authors.  Preston has worked at the American Museum of Natural History and its labyrinthine corridors are an important feature of both books.  Child is interested in ghost stories and tales of the supernatural and probably contributed much of the atmospherics in both of the books.

The Book of the Dead revolves around the installation of an ancient Egyptian tomb in the museum and the disasters that follow, raising the question of whether there really is a curse on anyone who violates the tomb.

Reading Preston and Child’s descriptions of the curses in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, I was taken back to the experience of walking through an exhibit featuring the Book of the Dead at the Paris Library about twenty years ago.  It was the first exhibit I had seen in which entering a room triggered a recording about the contents of the room.  As I entered each room (there seemed to be no one else around) a mellifluous male voice speaking BBC English began reciting from the pages displayed behind glass along the walls, things like, “and may the the God Maat devour your soul… and may beetles feast on your entrails…may you be torn apart by wild beasts…”.   It was a very entertaining and memorable experience.

 

How to tell the difference between a thriller and a romance

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I picked up Meryl Sawyer’s 2005 publication “Better off Dead” from a shelf of mysteries and thrillers.  It was well on its way to being a decent thriller, with a heroine who is in a witness protection program and the target of a hit team sent by remorseless criminals.  Then she meets A MAN, and the plot is put on pause while they rhapsodize about aspects of each others anatomy.   The lengthiness and detailed nature of these digressions were surprising until, in the middle of the paperback, I found an inserted page with a message from the editors thanking me for reading this fine romance novel.

So now I know what makes a book a romance novel, but I still don’t quite get Meryl Sawyer.  She can write a competent thriller, but she doesn’t make the most of her plot, opting instead to veer off into a romantic ending.  Maybe the market for romance is less competitive or better paying.