Friday, June 3, 2011

Recent Reading II

1. Nowhere to Run by C.J. Box

I picked this up at the store while I was still trying to muscle through Hot Blooded, and totally abandoned that book once I began reading C.J. Box's quick, intense novel. The heart of the conflict begins on page 19, and yet it didn't feel rushed. Rather, it fit the protagonist, game warden Joe Pickett, who would yawn at chapters of superfluous setup. Box doesn't need that to show us Pickett as a man in his element in the outdoors. Nor does the pace stop him from laying down some great lines, like when he describes the character of different mountain ranges: "These mountains were like a glimpse of a beautiful and exotic woman in a passing car, a gun on her lap, who refused to make eye contact." Nice.

But once the action starts, this book both hauls and kicks ass so you'd better hang on. Joe Pickett wanders into the domain of two nearly superhuman mountain men, and is lucky to escape, bloody and broken. But the men are still up there, and Joe knows he's going back after them. Superb action and descriptions, and also something I wasn't expecting: a story with truly challenging ethical questions. It turns out those mountain men may have a legitimate beef with the authorities. How will that affect the way Joe deals with them? I loved finding out.

I chewed through this book so fast I got a concussion on the back cover. The good news is that this is just one of a series (though as usual I've started in the middle).

2. Have His Carcase by Dorothy L. Sayers

Ms. Harriet Vane, in trekking along a fictional stretch of the English coast, discovers a dead man on a rock. His throat has been cut and the tide is coming in, soon destroying the crime scene. All the police have to go on are some photos and observations Harriet provides. The officials are happy to leave it at suicide, but Harriet and her bombastic (in the most gentlemanly way) acquaintance Lord Peter Wimsey set out to prove it was murder. The investigation is laid out in what I'd call amateur procedural, as opposed to police procedural. With a lesser writer the story might be sunk by the details, which are sometimes repetitious. But Sayers' bright dialogue between the two protagonists and her knowing when to offer some new twist to keep our interest saves the plot. I'll definitely be checking out more of the Wimsey series.

3. Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries edited by Mike Ashley

The problem with reading an "impossible crime" or "locked room mystery" is that it's like watching one of those TV shows that reveals how magicians do their tricks. What was an awe-inspiring enigma is reduced to, "Oh, really? That's it, huh?"

A lot (maybe half) of the stories in this anthology gave me that feeling. A remarkable setup (One is, "A man vanishes at the top of the Indian rope trick and is found dead miles away") followed by varying degrees of deflation. And most of that isn't the fault of the writers. It just goes with the territory. You can't have a man, alone, killed in a locked room and not explain it. That'd be cheating. And you can't blame it on something supernatural if you're writing straight crime fiction. That'd be a cop-out anyway. There are only two things that can overcome the let down of peeking behind the curtain: a truly clever methodology that doesn't seem forced or cheesy, and great storytelling. My favorite story in the collection, "Proof of Guilt" by Bill Pronzini, offers both of those. A lawyer is shot to death in his locked office. The only other person in the office is a man with a clear motive. But there is no gun. Not inside, not outside--nowhere. Oh, he did it, though. How? Email me, I don't want to give it away.

Next up on my reading queue: more Virgil Flowers by John Sandford and going back to Oyster Bay with Ellery Adams.

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