The 3RD Woman

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This book, published by Jonathan Freedland in 2015, succeeds on several levels.  It’s well written, but that’s only the basis.  It’s set in the Los Angeles of an alternative reality in which the US is well on the way to becoming a colony of China.  Years ago there was some concern that America was being bought up, bit by bit, by Saudi Arabia.  That was probably never a real threat, since the Saudis never showed any interest in taking over the world.  But it’s common knowledge that the US is deeply in debt to China and Freedland provides a possible answer to the question; what if America was forced to default?  Freedland  describes a scenario in which the US has allowed the Chinese to take over the ports of the California coast in order to collect the money owed them at the source.  Of course they have stationed quite a large number of soldiers at these sites to protect their interests.  Freedland does a convincing job of imagining a Southern California in which everyone has at least a smattering of Mandarin, Chinese tunes pop up on the hit parade, and there is an uneasy equilibrium between the American authorities and the Chinese over whom they have no jurisdiction.

The plot of the book is a murder mystery that reminded me of The Night of the Generals, the 1962 classic that deals with a murder in occupied Poland during World War II.  In that book by Hans Helmut Kirst, a detective with the German military police has to face the possibility of accusing a general of murder.   In The 3RD Woman, the role of the detective is taken by a young female reporter whose sister was one of the victims of an apparent serial killer and who fearlessly follows the clues that seem to lead to an officer of the Chinese garrison.

I try to avoid mysteries in which the main character is an alcoholic.  I know, the formula requires that the protagonist have some vulnerability/personal problem to make him/her human, but I read mysteries for entertainment, and the detective story version of the problems of an alcoholic tends to be tedious, squalid and neither interesting nor entertaining.  Freedland has taken an original tack and given his heroine the problem of insomnia.  While drinking usually hampers the fictional detective in his work, not sleeping does the opposite.  While lack of sleep doesn’t improve a detective’s abilities, it does mean that he/she has a lot of extra working hours.

 

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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.

I’m worried about Pendergast

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I read one of the Preston and Child thrillers featuring FBI agent Aloysius Pendergast some time ago, but after picking up another one recently I found myself with a minor addiction to the strange but fascinating detective and went on to read most of the series, which after the latest release two days ago numbers seventeen books.

Preston and Child have done amazingly well with this character, who is extreme in appearance (very tall and very fair), intellect, and personality (the manner of a very old fashioned southern gentleman).  They clearly feel at home with him by now, and as the series advances they put him through his paces with increasing confidence.

I’m sure I’ll order the latest book, but I’m afraid that Pendergast might be slipping over the edge from being just unbelievable enough to be impressive to becoming a caricature.  In the preview to the new book, the detective called to a murder site at night spots an intruder crouching near the back fence of the property.  This turns out to be his old friend Pendergast, officially sent by the FBI to join the investigation.  Why didn’t he come in at the front and present himself in the normal way?  The reply is that since he has to take part in what he expects to be an uninteresting case, he may as well make an entrance.  What??  A forty-something year old (at least) man just feels like scaling a fence in the dark and perhaps being shot by the police?  This isn’t an eccentric character, this is a ridiculous weirdo.

I’m hoping for the best, but I’m worried.  It must be hard to stay within the lines and not let an unusual character go spiraling off into the wild blue yonder.

Shame on You, Preston and Child!

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Preston and Child write terrific thrillers.  Special agent Aloysius Pendergast is a fascinating hero who has appropriately been  compared to Sherlock Holmes.  But no writer, and especially writers talented enough to manage without sleazy tricks, should corrupt the biography of real people to further a plot.

In Fever Dream they piggy-back on the fame of painter and ornithologist John James Audubon in the service of a plot about a creativity-enhancing form of bird flu.  Now many thousands of readers, even if they realize that the real Audubon was naturally a supremely talented and accomplished artist and naturalist, wont be able to help associating him with a strange story of illness and insanity.  Shame on you, Preston and Child!

I never quite understood why fiction writers employ researchers, since it seemed to me that tracking down and learning about places, history, etc. as background to a story is fun.  I caught a glimmer of the place of research assistance through the Pendergast series.  The agent knows everything there is to know about fine wines, clothes, art, and furnishings, not to mention literature, music, and ancient languages.  Either Preston and Child are two of the world’s most amazing Renaissance men or they employ a whole team of researchers.

The Blair Witch Project?

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The Three, published be Sarah Lotz in 2014, is a seriously weird book that reminded me of The Blair Witch Project, that student film effort that was talked about a lot some years ago.  I saw a bit of it on TV, and couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.  People claimed that the students filming themselves blundering around in the woods in the dark created a frightening atmosphere that made a not bad horror movie, but after interminable minutes of shaky, out of focus black and white images of bushes accompanied by a sound track of cursing (as the troop presumably tripped over roots, were scratched by branches, etc.) I gave up on it.

Sarah Lotz has done something similar, namely creating a horror story based (almost) entirely on atmospherics, but did it much better.

Her premise is that four plane crashes occur in various parts of the world on the same day, and in the case of at least three of them a small child is the sole survivor.   This seems even more miraculous because it’s not absolutely clear what brought each plane down, and the child survivors suffered only minor injuries.  The notion that the children represent the four horsemen of the apocalypse and presage the end of the world spreads like wildfire.  Ninety-nine percent of the book deals with the many unsettling consequences of the entire situation, but there are indications that there is actually something strange about these children.  What exactly is going on?  Lotz either doesn’t know herself or won’t say.

 

 

Perdido Street Station

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I read recently that distopias are much more common than utopias in futuristic fiction.  That makes sense, since there can’t be much suspense, danger, or other plot engine in paradise.  There’s plenty of both in the city of New Crobuzon described in China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, published in 2000, but on consideration, it may not be any more of a distopia than some big cities of today.  The political leadership is presiding over a police state with only a half- hearted pretense of democracy, but that’s been seen before.  There’s a lot of pollution and crumbling infrastructure, but that’s nothing new either.  Much of the distopian atmosphere is created by Miéville’s way with words, the endless inventiveness of his descriptions of dirt and decay and the (negatively) evocative names he gives to people and places (there’s a pub called “The Dying Child”!).

Miéville doesn’t explain where this city is, but I could guess that it’s on a planet colonized by humans from Earth in the distant past, on which they have encountered and learned to live beside a number of other intelligent and bizarre species.The two main characters who are introduced at the beginning are a bird man who needs a new set of wings and a human scientist to whom he applies for help.  The scientist hopes to solve the wingless bird man’s problem with unified field theory, but not the version Einstein was working on.  In a civilization in which computer technology is less advanced than the ability to harness magic, scientist Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin seems to succeed eventually in constructing a sort of quantum computer from junkyard finds.  That’s lucky, because he and his friends need every possible weapon to fight some extremely dangerous enemies.

 

NOT Agatha Christie

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Closed Casket, published by Sophie Hannah in 2017, is the second of Hannah’s attempts to continue Agatha Christie’s mystery series featuring eccentric and brilliant Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.  She has devised a plot intricate enough to mimic Christie and hasn’t done a bad job of presenting Poirot.  Scotland Yard Inspector Edward Catchpool, narrator of most of the story and Poirot’s foil, is also well done.  The rest of my comments explain why I will avoid Hannah’s first outing of the reimagined Poirot and any third or following volumes.

One of Christie’s great strengths was her ability to create a great variety of plausible characters, some of whom turned out to be murderers but none of whom were obviously deranged or psychopathic (and if they were, it would turn out to be a red herring). The characters chosen by Hannah to populate a Christie-style 1920’s mansion, by contrast, are uniformly weird.  They’re so peculiar, in fact, that I wonder if Hannah has made them so peculiar and unsympathetic as a kind of homage by exaggeration.  Because none of them are at all believable, the entire plot collapses, depending as it does on unreal people behaving more and more strangely.

Too bad.  It was a good idea.