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.

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

The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque by Jeffrey Ford

A young and talented though not yet entirely established painter, Piambo, is approached on the street by a blind man, who relays the message from his employer: Paint me, but without ever seeing me. You may be in my presence only if on the other side of a screen, and you may not see images of me, ask me to describe myself or ask anyone who has seen me to do the same. All you will have upon which to base your sketches is what I tell you about myself.

Intriguing concept, most definitely. Piambo takes on the commission, though it proves as difficult as anyone with a grain of knowledge of how painting and painters work could imagine. The sittings last for several weeks, an hour at a time, while Piambo sits on one side of an opaque screen and Mrs. Charbuque on the other. The stories grow more enthralling, yet Piambo is no closer to envisioning his subject despite the snowstorm of words she throws to him. In the end, desperate for more concrete visuals, he searches the community for information on this mysterious woman and at last her own house. It is here that he finds a stack of paintings, done by other artists, of Mrs. Charbuque: all different, and all poles apart from what he himself is attempting to do.

To heighten the drama, there is a strange epidemic spreading among the women of New York; periodically, one will be found swooning with her eyes dissolved into rivulets of blood. To compound Piambo’s own struggles, he is pursued by the jealous husband of his subject, as mysteriously unseen as his wife; Charbuque speaks from shadows in the depths of alleys, from behind while clasping Piambo in a chokehold to the neck. The message is always the same: leave my wife alone.

…and yes, there’s a plot twist, so I’ll stop here.

The book’s an interesting take on the art and technique of painting, or rather of making a living at one’s painting while alive. The process of creating a portrait such as the one in the title, the tightrope balancing of following ones’ muse and remaining true to one’s own artistic vision with that of, bluntly, making a living. Holbein wouldn’t have gotten off the ground if he’d painted Henry and Anne of Cleves exactly as they were, and Piambo’s in the same fix.

I’d call this Gothic Lite; while modern authors such as Dan Simmons ‘improve’ on the original in the sense of including a greater number of more lavishly supernatural details, Ford has stripped down the genre to its barer, and therefore more straightforward, underlying structure. Less circumlocutions. Fewer clauses, both subordinate and independent. And decidedly less purple; I’d call this no more than palest lavender. Recommended for people who like historical fiction, New York and the complexities of the Victorian Era but without the entangled fevered prose so popular at the time.

Now, back to Melmoth the Wanderer and Pride and Prejudice for me…and not least The Strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. (sorry, did I say that last out loud? no plot spoilers here, please move along.)

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.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

At the risk of sounding like a Jasper Fforde novel, this is a book in which Something Awful Happened in the Long Ago, and it’s this concealed mystery around which the plot revolves. Just as a warning: I’ve put spoilers down at the end, though not many and somewhat cryptic.

The introductory scene in the book gives some hints as to what this secret might be: Our Protagonist, Laurel, is sixteen in 1961, and the oldest of five siblings (Iris, Rose, Daphne and, breaking away from the floral/vegetative theme, a little brother Gerald). For the moment, she’s torn balancing her desire to tear away from her fuddy-duddy parents and time-consuming sisters with her love for that self-same family and the stability granted that her parents’ love for one another and the family’s love for one another. Laurel has hidden away in her ‘childhood treehouse during a game of hide-and-seek, the better to contemplate her own dreams of the future, when she sees a strange man approaching the house. Theirs is a fairly remote house—such things were easier fifty years ago in Englahd—so random strangers are a rarity. She regards him curiously…only to see her mother stab this man to death, using the familial Ceremonial Cake Knife…and there the central mystery ends until we reach the denouement of the novel.

The official “now” framing story is that of the family, now grown and gone their separate adult ways; though still close, the children don’t see each other more than once every few weeks or months, their father has passed away after fifty years and their mother is in an assisted living facility, in failing health herself. Laurel, now herself in her mid-sixties, has never thought to ask her mother about not only that strange man beyond what Dorothy and Stephen were willing to tell her at the time, but also simply more about their lives prior to meeting one another. How many children ever do? It is the reminder of her own mortality in the shape of her mother’s approaching death which prompts Laurel to delve deeper into her mother’s past. At first it is only a matter of assembling a “book of memories” to prompt her mother’s failing memory that inspires Laurel, but some odd responses—fear or surprise where there should only be pleasant reminiscence…and occasionally the reverse—prompt her to delve deeper.

Through a combination of vague suggestions from her mother, gradually sinking deeper into the gentle senility of extreme old age, and on Laurel’s own part a fair bit of organized historical research at The British Library and other lesser venues and a few interviews with survivors who knew her mother in the early ’40s, Laurel begins to piece things together. The intruder in 1961 was one Henry Jenkins, once a Famous Author, but now a near-vagrant having fallen to pieces after his wife’s death in one of the many bombings during the Blitz. But why has he come to Laurel’s mother, Dorothy, and perhaps more importantly, both to Laurel and to the readers, why did the seemingly mild-mannered homebody Dorothy Nicholson stab this stranger? The readers, being party to the “then” chapters, find all this out as Laurel uncovers the dusty past, of course; in the end, Laurel’s learned more than she ever really wanted to know about her mother’s past, though not the whole truth.

“In the Blitz” begins her mother’s story, or rather middles, as so many good novels about twentieth-century Britain do; Dorothy’s family has been killed in the bombings, leaving Dorothy, a girl in her late teens, on her own to support herself with very little experience or education. From thence continues a story of family secrets, personal secrets, spousal abuse, unreliable narrators, and double crossing, ending with a conveniently timed bomb, killing the girl who (‘fess up, you’ll agree with me!) the girl who deserves to die does die, and the girl who deserves love and life survives…but with a slight change in just who became whom.

Then-and-now stories’ inherent need to flip back and forth between the two portions of the novel may leave some readers a bit cold, for the very simple reason that authors are essentially trying to write two separate novels, combined into one. In the hands of a skilled author, such as Kate Morton, the interwoven plot(s) will at least…well…interweave plausibly, but I always end up with the uncomfortable feeling that I’ve just read three-quarters each of two different novels, bunged up together. In this case, I would have liked to learn more about the years intervening between the murder in 1961 and the mother’s death in 2011, more about the childhood of Dorothy and Vivien, and not to mention more about the peripheral characters such as the nanny Katy and the erstwhile beau Jimmy; what were their lives before and after intersecting with the Dolly/Vivien morass?

It doesn’t help that there’s a possible mental illness subplot that wasn’t terribly well developed; without that, Dolly’s reasons for blackmailing Vivien don’t seem quite so plausible, though had she lived, we might have found out as much about the true Dolly as we did about the woman masquerading in her place all those years.

As with many of my previous reviews, I feel there should be a disclaimer: I read this in less than 24 hours, and finished it willingly, enjoying it for the most part. Editors and librarians just like picking books apart to analyze them…This is definitely a book to read twice, the before-the-denouement and the after-the-denouement reads; as with Iain Pears’ The Instance of the Fingerpost, there are enough unreliable narrators and plot twists to make the book mean one thing before you know and one after. Though perhaps not so complexly.

The Major Plot Twist actually does make sense in the end: neither Vivien or Dolly had many people who knew them closely enough to care enough about where they’d gone to track them down in the event they vanished, especially during the turmoil of the Blitz. Staying out of the way of their acquaintances might be more of an issue, though “Mum” took care of that neatly enough by slipping off to the contentedly bucolic life on a smallholding, tied up in her family.

Reviews:
Reading on a Rainy Day
Fantasy Book Critic