Wednesday, December 21, 2011

G.M. Malliet's Death and the Lit Chick & Death at the Alma Mater

G.M. Malliet,
     Death and the Lit Chick, 2009
     Death at the Alma Mater, 2010

I haven't blogged promptly about these two: in fact, I renewed them so they could stare at me and make me blog about them, but they're now overdue. Not a habit to get into! They both continue on from Death of a Cozy Writer, with the further investigations of Detective Chief Inspector St. Just, a worthy and capable protagonist for the genre.

In Death and the Lit Chick, St. Just finds himself at a castle in Scotland, offering a workshop at a crime-writers' conference about evidentiary procedure and the like. He finds himself with a crush on one of the writers, only to have her (and the rest of the weird lot) become suspects when one of the authors is murdered while the castle's drawbridge is up — the locked-room mystery writ Gothic. Malliet does a terrific job at describing St. Just's fascination with Portia De'Ath: it's a very well written capturing of a first blush of feelings. The mystery itself is decent, but not overly remarkable: odd relationships and details typical of castles and of CSI help an okay plot along to a forgettable conclusion, complete with all the suspects gathered in the Great Room for the great detective's explication of the crime. (The addition of DCI Ian Moor, the detective in charge of the investigation, is a nice touch to St. Just — we actually get someone who is St. Just's equal, and pleasantly funny to boot.

Death at the Alma Mater is more tightly plotted but less plausible. Summoned to a Cambridge college, St. Just finds himself investigating an odd gaggle of alumni from whom the college is trying to raise a pretty penny. The murder of one of their number prompts an investigation that leads St. Just off at weird angles before finally seeing through an overly-complicated scheme and nabbing the murderer.

I'm going to keep reading Malliet's mysteries, as her writing is certainly entertaining. It has a piece I need missing, though. I enjoy the way she plays with the unities of place and time (a manor house, a castle, a college, a village; a weekend, a conference, a weekend, a fair), but there's a failure in the effort to break through the conventions that I have trouble getting past. In the St. Just series, we watch as she gathers her overly weird suspects to traditional venues for a murder. She bumps off one or more of the cast, and we move through the investigation. Each time, I've waited for the turn, the new take on the convention--and on the times it has come, it has been too slight an innovation or too weak a new look. There's such potential that never quite offers something new. I also struggle with the characters: while some, like St. Just, De'Ath, and Sgt. Fear, are well developed, too many of the others are given a quick sketch and that's all we're given to understand them: Malliet doesn't write Russian novels, but I still needed her character list because I simply wasn't motivated by the writing to tell a couple of characters apart in each of the stories. The newer Wicked Autumn shows improvement on that score, but with too trite and poorly developed a conclusion to be called a great murder-mystery.

I will gladly read her next book, as I do enjoy her work. I wish I could enjoy it just a bit more.

Tony Hendra's _Father Joe_

Tony Hendra, Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul, 2004.

Three-quarters memoir, two-tenths paean, one twentieth context, Hendra's book needs to be approached as a reflection on how his own life has been changed by another. It's not a biography, nor an introduction to what life is like in a Benedictine monastery: it's about Hendra's life, and how it's better because of Father Joe's role in it.

The eponymous Father Joe was a Benedictine monk at Quarr Abbey. After an indiscretion as a lad with a married woman, her husband took Hendra to the Abbey. The book is really about how Fr. Joe helped Hendra to grow up: recovering from the relationship, and then in nearly every aspect of his life. Hendra discovers a deep admiration both for Fr. Joe himself and for the Benedictine way of life (though with, I'd argue, an overly fixed view of the latter: later in the book Hendra describes his inability to cope at all well with the liturgy changing from Latin to English). He decides he wants to become a monk, and lives with Quarr as a second home and Fr. Joe as a second father. Thwarted in his desires to enter Quarr by winning a scholarship to Cambridge, Hendra's life turns to the career as a satirist — and all of the accompanying messes that emerge as a life is lived.

The book is an engaging read, and it's easy to identify with many of the stages Hendra identifies in his own life: his awakening to vocation, and his subsequent loss of faith; his discovery of comedy as art, and his flailing attempts to live with another. I found it both moving and endearing to read his portrayal of his father and his own marital challenges.

The two most effective parts of the book were for me the twin morals: be where you are, and love. The first is explored best around Hendra's second marriage: Fr. Joe's advice to Hendra is to do a better job of being a husband (and father), to find his sense of roots in the marriage. It's a translation of the Benedictine vow of stability, the sense that life isn't better anywhere else, but is best lived where one is. The second portion is best expressed when Fr. Joe and Hendra talk about what humour is, and we see the ease with which humour — and satire in particular — can hurt: Fr. Joe's impulse to ask deeper questions about the intent and design of the humour is subtle for the reader, but wise indeed.

One weakness of the book is the dialogue, and I wish I had a better sense of what bothers me about it. Hendra presents conversations he had with Fr. Joe, and there are times when the dialogue is plausible, and times when it's quite difficult to read. I think this is just a stylistic issue, a failure of the author to capture the authentic rhythms of speech because the idea is more important than the style, but I'm not quite sure. I plan to spend some more time thinking about that question.

Ultimately, it's an enjoyable read and rewarding for more than just those interested in living a religious life: Hendra succeeds in capturing something of the struggles of life, and his view of his path manages to offer insights for the reader without ever slipping and becoming prescriptive.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

"Richard Castle", Heat Rises

Richard Castle”, Heat Rises, 2011.

Yes, this book was an odd reading choice after my disappointment in the second volume of “Castle’s” series. [For those not in the loop, Richard Castle is a character on the TV show Castle, played by the delightfully insouciant Nathan Fillion; Castle is a crime-fiction writer, and this series of books is loosely based on his character’s experiences as the partner of Detective Kate Becket.]

The novel is in the same vein as the first two: quippy, funny, and similar to the show in many ways. I didn’t have the same suspension of disbelief issues as I had with the last outing, but I did find this newest volume overly predictable (You’re going to figure this one out, if you’ve read a mystery of two before). The twist with Heat Rises is that it’s an interesting fictionalisation/projected-wish-fulfilment commentary on the events of the previous season of Castle. It doesn’t add anything viewers would miss, but is interesting to read the book in light of the episodes. What I find fascinating is that the intertextuality is now in this direction rather than the other: we’ve moved from watching Castle and catching Kate reading a copy in the washroom to readers noticing links to the tv show. Fundamentally, this shift seems to be about advertising and attracting the same audience (or a subset) across different platforms. I hope not to see this worrisome trend continue, but won’t count my chickens.