Before the Poison, by Peter Robinson

Well, I finished the book, and that’s more praise than it sounds. That said, my reaction upon finishing the book was “Bwuh? …sorry, don’t follow?”

Hopefully, I can summarize the plot without giving too much away. Indeed, the apparent central question never is really decided one way or the other.

The book jacket blurb plot synopsis: Chris Lowndes arrives in Yorkshire, having carried through with the plans he’d made with his now-dead wife to return to his childhood home, in a broad sense–he’s purchased a house in the Dales that’s stood empty for some years, with only a sporadic tourist rental. The house agent seems mildly discomfited about his inquiry into why the house has been, in essence, unoccupied for so long; he suspect there’s something she’s not telling him.

And sure enough, there is, and it’s a whopper: there’s been a death in the house sixty years earlier. The husband, a cold-fish doctor, dies in the night. Caught in a snowstorm, the wife and her guests cannot leave or even communicate with the outside world until the snow is cleared and the officials arrive. Was he poisoned or did he die of a heart attack? The circumstances are of concern to officials, but the forensic evidence isn’t conclusive one way or the other, due in no small part to the time elapsed between death and inquest.

The wife is tried, found guilty and executed.

This is not wholly a surprise to the readers: Banks has set this plotline up quite clearly from page one, with the “contemporary” account of the wife’s execution, before we’ve even met the narrator. Even the question of her motivation is made fairly clear during the course of the trial: she has a young lover, and her husband had been an emotionally cold man. Divorce is not particularly an option, not least for the shame and social ostracization involved.

Well, maybe not. The death or her reasons for doing….well, whatever she did or did not do to her husband. The book leaves the did she/didn’t she question rather up in the air.

But I have a couple of problems that begin way back at the beginning of the book. And hopefully, I can explain them without giving away too much about the denouement and conclusion.

Why did the legal system, in 1953, decide that quickly that Grace had killed her husband? The evidence truly can be fit into either conclusion–an overdose of potassium can stop a person’s heart, but a severe heart attack does also release significant amounts of potassium into the victim’s bloodstream. The prosecution’s case is shaky but it’s generally agreed among the people surviving in 2010 that the defence didn’t even try.

Why did Lowndes, in 2010, go to such great lengths to investigate the dead past? He’s justifiably distraught about his wife’s recent death after he (plot point I can’t give away) but we don’t find the precise distressing circumstances out until the last twenty pages of a 350 page book, and I didn’t really get a sense of just how distraught he was through the previous 320 pages. Somewhat, to be sure, but beginning the process of moving on. Even after rereading the conclusion, I’m not entirely sure why Lowndes feels there is a connection between himself and Grace?

My polite reaction: I don’t think I’m the correct audience for the book, but then I was expecting a tale somewhere on the mystery/psychological thriller/suspense spectrum. This strikes me more as a book about a man’s exploration of history, and contemplating his life and life choices.

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Tom’s Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce

Warning: spoiler down at the bottom. The perhaps-necessary prefatory explanation: the book was written in 1958 and it’s set in England. Greater London, in the direction of Cambridge and Fen Country (but then the southeastern third of England is Greater London, and was even then.)

For my own records as much as telling anyone else about the plot: Tom is being sent away from home for some weeks, while his brother gets over measles. The two boys had been looking forward to spending a delightful summer together building a tree house in the old apple tree in the bottom of their admittedly small town garden. Now Tom is stuck moping around his aunt and uncle’s completely gardenless city flat, quarantined until he’s gotten through the incubation period for measles himself.

Bored out of his skull after only a few days of confinement indoors, he lies awake, insomniac, night after night, until the fateful night when the grandfather clock downstairs strikes thirteen. He creeps downstairs to find out what’s up, and opens the door that leads out into the yard so the moonlight will fall on the clock face so he can read it…

…but outside he sees not the manky little scrap of sickly grass and paved yard, with dustbins, which his aunt and uncle have told him is there, but rather a huge garden. The sort found surrounding manor houses of a century long gone, even at the time the book was written. Rows of columnar yew trees divide the kitchen gardens from the flower walk from the croquet court from the greenhouse conservatory; this much he can see from his cursory stroll through the garden that moonlit midnight.

Over the next few days, or rather nights, he explores the garden further. There are children living here, three boys all older than he, and a forlorn girl cousin his age, always tagging along behind the boys, who prefer not to play with her for reasons other than ‘she’s a girl’ and ‘she’s younger than we are’.

His visit is scheduled to end in a couple of weeks, when his brother’s recovered from the measles and it’s clear that Tom himself isn’t going to come down with them, but Tom begs to remain. Nonplussed, his parents and aunt and uncle agree; he’s told only Peter of what’s going on, so only the two brothers understand why Tom wishes to remain. Over the course of the next few weeks, Tom and Hatty become close friends, though he is only a ghost to her, only nebulously present; walking through doors just gives him a funny feeling in his tum and he’s forced to instruct Hatty from the sidelines on how to make a toy bow because he can’t hold the knife to cut the branch or tie the string.

Though for Tom, the visits are nightly, on Hatty’s end they’re sporadic; Tom only comes every few weeks or months. Over the course of the book, we see Hatty growing up, and on Tom’s last visit, it’s clear that she’s on the verge of marrying the young man who’s been courting her.

‘Invisible friend’, dreams, or actual visits? We’ll never know.

A bit dated now–the book was written in 1958–so modern kids might be left wondering about things like the protagonist being sent away because his brother has measles. Otherwise it’s a fun book for dreamy readers. Astute readers will figure out the connection between the girl in the garden and Tom’s modern-day life, but it’s fun nevertheless. If you liked books like Magic Elizabeth or Octagon Magic, this is probably for you, especially if you’re a dreamy boy who wants to read books about boys.

(The spoiler? “Hatty”, the girl Tom keeps meeting in the garden, turns out to be the child version of the grumpy cantankerous old landlady, out of whose presence he’s been kept for the entire visit (even after he was out of quarantine).

I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga

What’s it like to be raised by a serial killer…and how much do you really trust the nature versus nurture debate?

Jasper ‘Jazz’ Lyga is struggling with issues that put most teens’ trials into a league with skipping through a daisy field. First, he’s covering up the fact that his grandmother was already slipping into dementia when she was assigned to be his caregiver four years ago, and she’s been deteriorating ever since. Second, his mother is dead and his father imprisoned…and third, his father raised him for almost ten years.

His father, the serial killer. Which brings us to the last worry: will Jazz be able to break that early molding, or will he merely crack and become just like his father? To compound all those worries, concerns, problems and issues, there’s a copycat serial killer, working in his father’s style, in the small town of Lobo’s Nod in which he’s now living. Not surprisingly, the police consider Jazz to be Suspect #1. Well, wouldn’t you?

He and his hemophiliac friend, Howie, work together to research the identity of the serial killer, in parallel with the police; the boys in blue, while individually grateful for the insight Jazz can give as the child of a(nother) serial killer, are as an institution resistant to accepting help from someone who himself is automatically a suspect…even by Jazz himself.

While as a mystery this isn’t brilliant—I’m terrible at guessing whodunit in such books and even here I’d narrowed it down to a smaller number of suspects than those listed by Jazz and/or the police—as a YA novel describing the thought process of a serial killer, and of the angst of a teenaged child of same, wonderful.

How do serial killers do it, again and again and again and again, without drawing suspicion on themselves? Intelligence, quite possibly off the charts, check. Charm to put a politician or a televangelist to shame, check. The ability to understand others’ psychology and therefore manipulate them, check….and Jazz has all three in equal amounts to his father’s abilities. As the first of a trilogy, this book doesn’t end with a neatly tied-up ending—the serial killer caught, Jazz vindicated, his father back in jail—but rather with a huge hook for the subsequent books. Under the circumstances, I’ll forgive Lyga, however. The first book is worth the cliffhanger. I’ll definitely be looking up the sequels.

This is a police procedural-style mystery, and one of the few books to which I’ll add something of a parental advisory: given the nature of the crime being investigated, not to mention the upbringing of the protagonist, there is necessarily a considerable amount of detail in regards the nature of what constitutes a serial killer. This might therefore be better for more mature teens. On the plus side, this is the reason I’d suggest the book to those not put off by such things: I think Lyga pegs the mental workings of someone raised in this manner just right. On the minus, well, gee: serial killers’ methodology and psychology can be icky! (no surprises there!)

As a librarian, I’m often torn in regards warning parents about books. On the one hand, I think that parents do have the right to determine what their children read and therefore the concomitant responsibility to not only be aware of what their children are reading but more specifically the responsibility to read what their children are reading before the kids do. On the other hand…kids are tougher than parents might realize, and often may find a traumatic issue easier to deal with when they see it in a work of fiction rather than meeting it in real life.

The Solitaire Mystery by Jostein Gaarder

Combining philosophy with travelogue with phantasmagorical playing cards? Doesn’t always work, but Gaarder does a pretty good job! I’ll try to describe the book fairly without giving too much away about the plot twists.

The framing story is narrated by a boy named Hans Thomas; his mother, Anita, took off eight years prior to ‘find herself’ and hasn’t been back since. One day, an aunt sent them a fashion magazine in which Anita appeared as a fashion model, and as the novel begins, Hans Thomas and his father have set off from their home on Hisoy Island off the coast of Norway on a road trip down through Europe to Greece, where Anita’s most recent photoshoot was located. In Switzerland, we begin to pick up the story-within-a-story when the two are sent on a detour by a mysterious midget with ice-cold hands to a minuscule town in the Alps called Dorf; there, Hans Thomas befriends an old baker who gives the lonely boy four sticky buns, admonishing him to eat the biggest one only when he is alone.

Inside the sticky bun is a minuscule book1, readable only with the magnifying glass given Hans Thomas by the mysterious midget. At first deciphering the minute writing is only an amusing way to pass the time while his father drives, and pontificates, and drives some more2, but as he reads, Hans Thomas realizes that this story, and therefore the baker, may be connected to him. It’s told by the baker, Ludwig, now an old man, about how he came to be the baker in such an isolated town far from his own home: as a young man, he came to rest there after World War II, and was invited to take over the shop of the baker at the time, Albert. The villagers are wary of this seemingly cracked old man, but Albert shows Ludwig enough to convince him of the truth of his story.

I’ll stop there, not least because I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but also because to do a proper job of describing the plot of that convoluted ‘sticky bun’ book would take several blog entries of the length I’ve been making. Just a note, though, as it took me a couple of readings to straighten this plot point out: the ‘sticky bun’ book is actually four stories nested one within the other like a matrioshka doll. Ludwig is the baker who spoke to Our Narrator; he was the German soldier in World War II. Albert is the baker from whom Ludwig took over the shop; he was the youngest child of an alcoholic. Hans is the baker from whom Albert took over; he’s the second sailor to be shipwrecked on the mysterious island in the Atlantic from which the midget came. Frode is the original shipwrecked sailor, and the one who dreamed up the playing-card beings. Confused yet? Don’t worry; just enjoy the book. Really.

Through the vagaries of international publishing, especially where the literature requires translating, this was written (and published in Norway) a year before Gaarder wrote Sophie’s World, but Sophie’s World, being an international bestseller, was published before The Solitaire Mystery in the United States. At this point, I’d suggest readers in any country read them in publication order. One is not the sequel to the other, nor is there any structural connection between the two; it’s more that The Solitaire Mystery is the simpler story. In a manner of speaking.

1presumably itself also crumby and more than slightly sticky; I’ve always wondered how the baker got the book in there without harming the book in any way.
2Don’t worry: Hans Thomas does get his nose out of the book long enough to not only engage with his father frequently but also notice some of the glories they’re passing in their trek

Dr. Siri Paiboun by Colin Cotterill

The initial disclaimer: ‘Dr. Siri Paiboun’ is actually the name of the mystery series’ protagonist, not the title of any of the mysteries.

Dr. Paiboun has been roped into serving as Laos’ only coroner after the wars ended in the mid-1970s, and he isn’t happy about it. He’s seventy-two, and he was looking forward to a quiet receding into a retirement of calm contemplation and very little action at all. No such luck.

Instead, he gets to deal with being the only coroner in a nation with little technology (even for the mid-seventies) much less things like a reliable constant power grid, and a non-corrupt political structure. The politicians who govern the coroner’s office have no medical training and very little in the way of intelligence or education. This is not forensics or autopsy technique that would be recognized by any European or North American coroner’s office of the time; no Kay Scarpetta, Paiboun hasn’t even a scale designed to weigh the bodies, or a bone saw. Given the local climate, they’re lucky to have refrigerated storage for the bodies. He has one nurse, Dtui, and one assistant, a Mr. Geung, who though he has Down’s Syndrome does serve the coroner’s office well, given that his prodigious memory retains all that Paiboun’s predecessor did prior to swimming the Mekhong with an inner tube some months before Paiboun’s appointment at the beginning of the series.

If there’s such a thing as a cozy police procedural series, this is it, although I’m sure there are many who’d niggle that definition! I’m using it in the sense of a series with a protagonist who is not a detective or affiliated with the established law enforcement government agency which investigates suspicious deaths—your choice of official here. (local police force, FBI, immigration, whatever) In fairness, a government coroner is far closer to ‘connected with established law enforcement’ than most of the cozies out there. Strictly speaking, the ‘Siri Paiboun’ series is closer to a police procedural than a cozy, as the protagonist is an official government agent affiliated with law enforcement, and the story lines themselves do involved criminal forensics.

On the plus side, for me, Cotterill’s picked someone who would quite plausibly encounter dead bodies which became that way under mysterious or suspicious circumstances: the national coroner. The minus? Cotterill isn’t actually a member of one of the groups indigenous to the region…in fairness, that may or may not be an issue, but I know some people get ruffled about cultural appropriation. In that case, I would make the polite request “Suggest a mystery author who does so belong AND who writes in a language I can read.”

Overall, I liked the series well enough to come back and voluntarily read a second—not the case for many mysteries I’ve read in the last couple of years. There are flaws, of course, but I’d chalk those up to The Coroner’s Lunch being the first in the series. I read two in the series, the first (The Coroner’s Lunch) and the eighth (Slash and Burn), and both revolved largely about life in a war-torn nation, piecing life together and trying to feel your way forward in a job that no one else has and a career that the protagonist expected would be over by now.

Arsenic and Old Puzzles by Parnell Hall

When an unidentified guest at one of the local bed-and-breakfasts is found dead one morning, it is not surprising that the police are called in to investigate…but when a crossword and a sudoku puzzle are found on the body, The Puzzle Lady is called in to assist the police. The investigation team has barely begun investigating Death #1, when subsequent bodies, also found inert under suspicious circumstances, start accumulating. A pattern begins to emerge here, that of the stage play/Cary Grant vehicle, Arsenic and Old Lace: Victim #1 has been killed by a mix of arsenic, strychnine and ‘just a pinch of cyanide’ in his glass of (yes, you guessed it) elderberry wine1, Victim #2 is in the window seat, there’s what appears to be a grave in the dirt cellar, and to cap things off, one nephew is engaged to the girl next door, and the other has a gauntly pallid cadaverous visage.

(of course it’s not really connected in any way to Arsenic and Old Lace, but I’ll stop there to as to attempt avoiding spoilers.)

In true cozy style, Hall has his protagonist collect all the suspects together in the parlor of the bed-and-breakfast, in order to Reveal Her Conclusions. Unlike Miss Marple, however, this protagonist is still in full possession of a decidedly youthful interest in men, having had five (plus) marriages, most of which were legal, and a few rewarding relationship with members of the opposite gender. Not to mention the fact that she’s a only mildly reformed smoker and drinker.

This is the most recent (so far as I can tell) in Parnell Hall’s “Puzzle Lady” series; I’ll reserve judgement on the series as a whole until I’ve read a couple more, but this first one I’ve read has already passed a couple of tests with flying colors. One, even coming into the middle of the series, I was able to follow the peripheral details of the relationships here; while I might have found all that repetitive had I followed the series from the beginning, it’s nice to find a series which one can pick up mid-way and yet not feel left out. Another plus for me is that the “hook”, here crossword puzzles, actually served as part of the mystery itself, rather than a mere publicity device; I couldn’t tell that Goldy Bear’s catering business had much to do with the crimes she encountered, for example. (Doesn’t hurt that I like crossword puzzles, nor that the person creating them is himself a reasonably well-respected puzzlemaker.)

What to read next? Well, there are a lot of “hook” cozies out there that might appeal to readers. Though I can’t offhand think of any others which involve crosswords as a central plot point, there are a few that do have as their central characters a lady of mature years with…an enthusiasm for life not usually included in the stereotype of that age group and gender, shall we say? While the protagonists of the series aren’t cookie cutters of each other, I’d suggest starting with Anne George, Rita Lakin, Jeanne Dams’ Shrewsbury series and Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax books.

1having made elderberry cordial myself, yes, a liqueur made from straight elderberries is powerfully flavored enough to cover up just about anything.

Dark Nantucket Noon by Jane Langton

A total eclipse. A murdered woman found dead, bleeding from a stab to her chest, at the feet of the one woman who had most cause to hate her, her husband’s former lover…who just happened to be holding a bloody knife? What could the police do but arrest the living woman?

Kitty Clark has come out to the island of Nantucket to view the eclipse, as that’s the place closest to her from which the eclipse can be viewed in totality. While she does know that her ex-lover, Joe Green, is living on Nantucket with his new wife, she does not know that they have planned to view the eclipse from the lighthouse at the tip of Great Point…and heads out there herself. She reaches the lighthouse just as the eclipse reaches totality, and screams in terrified exultation as darkness descends.

Unfortunately, a dead body has descended from the lighthouse to land at her feet, revealed to her and to the other eclipse viewers up in the lighthouse. Kitty is arrested on circumstantial evidence—she is holding a bloody knife, and she is the only person on the beach in physical proximity to the dead woman—although she is soon released on bail. It is here that Langton’s ‘detective’, retired police officer Homer Kelly, makes his appearance; he is no longer an official member of any law agency and was merely on Nantucket to research Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

One land preservation trust, an international phone call to a Swiss lawyer and a few plots involving whaling later, the mystery is solved. Nice set-up, I have to admit—having been through a total eclipse myself, I can attest to the fact that they are exactly that creepy—although as with many cosies, this should probably be taken with a grain of salt. Homer Kelly’s tendency to break things and his height get old fast.

I have to appreciate this mystery for three reasons. For one thing, Langton has laid her clues out in a logical sequence that many cozy mystery authors might do well to emulate; I could only think of Father Knox’s tongue in cheek list of rules regarding the plotting of mysteries, in which the eighth reads “The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.”1. It is absolutely clear who killed Helen Green, and why, once the book comes to a conclusion. (There’s also a nod to rule #2: “All superna[t]ural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.”) Also, she manages to give a fairly accurate sense of place and description of Nantucket’s people and landscape without devolving into mere travelogue; it’s more than slightly dated now, 35 years after the book’s original publication, but interesting nevertheless. Lastly, I really do have to admire an author who can work in a reasonably accurate scientific explanation of the circumstances which rendered the murderer able to off zir victim…and it’s not just the fact that it’s kind of dark during a total eclipse of the sun.

Discovery News commentary on science in mysteries

1I first heard about in Skvorecky’s Sins for Father Knox