Paris in July: Murder on the Ile Sordou

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When I was a young bride living in Europe, I would often take the time offered to teachers in the summer to flit about my favorite countries. I would put on a shade of Chanel lipstick, which is no longer made, named Explosion; it was a brilliant fuschia which matched my maillot de bain perfectly, and somehow I felt quite comfortable on the beaches of the French Riviera wearing ridiculously bold colors. It was the 1980’s, after all.

Along the coast of the Riviera is a most beautiful city named Aix en Provence. which is about 30 km north of Marseille. It is here that the author of this mystery, M. L. Longworth, writes when she is not teaching in Paris. Her novel Murder on the Ile Sordou takes place on a fictitious island, but one that may resemble any of the islands off the coast of Marseille, and it is a novel with more ambiance than any mystery I have read.

While it may resemble the writing of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, or Donna Leon’s Venice, this mystery has a quality all of its own. M. L. Longworth brings France in general, and Provence in particular, to life with her dialogue, her setting, and her characters. Even the meals which they enjoyed after a two hour afternoon nap seemed indescribably delicious.

I’ve made a summer menu, so let’s just forget about the storm out there: we’ll begin with cucumber and melon gazpacho and then red snapper ceviche shooters, followed by vegetable spring rolls. Once we’re sitting we’ll eat roast bass with olive oil, mussels, and cherry tomatoes, and, finally, in honor of our meat-loving host, a rack of grilled lamb with stir-fried summer vegetables, wasabi puree, and a cilantro-mint vinaigrette.

A loud round of applause rang out. “And not to forget dessert,” Emile said, holding up his hand.” A chocolate cake served with fresh strawberries and vanilla bean ice cream, surrounded by a concoction I call ginger and lavender drizzle.”

Oh, the lavender in Provence! The seafood! The cresting waves of the sea on a summer evening…I was there in an instant, enjoying the remembered sensations even more than the mystery itself.

If I should tell you about the mystery, I would spoil the surprise. You must read it yourself to discover which of the guests who have arrived by boat will be murdered and why. But, while you are reading of the case to be solved, you will be immersed in the culture, and for me that was the most special aspect of this book.

 

The Secret Place by Tana French

The Secret Place

A Retir’d Friendship

 

Here let us sit and bless our Starres

Who did such happy quiet give,

As that remov’d from noise of warres.

In one another’s hearts we live.

 

Why should we entertain a feare?

Love cares not how the world is turn’d.

If crouds of dangers should appeare,

Yet friendship can be unconcern’d.

 

We weare about us such a charme,

No horrour can be our offence:

For mischief’s self can doe no harme

To friendship and to innocence.

 

~Katherine Philips

 

Could not put it down, this mystery by Tana French. It brought me back to girls’ mean ways, cliques and bonds, manipulations and trickery. But in this case, there is also evil of the worst kind; unspeakable actions disguised as loving intent. It’s a powerful mystery, one that had me absolutely riveted for the past two days. Rarely have I read dialogue so true, nor a plot more expertly woven.

An Officer and A Spy by Robert Harris

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There is no such thing as a secret–not really, not in the modern world, not with photography and telegraphy and railways and newspaper presses. The old days of an inner circle of like-minded souls communicating with parchment and quill pens are gone. Sooner or later most things will be revealed.

While Claude DeBussy was composing Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune, and Emile Zola was writing highly anticipated novels, Georges Picquard began investigating the case of Alfred Dreyfus. Accused of being a traitor against the French, and already half-condemned because of being a Jew, Dreyfus had been sent to Devil’s Island where he was isolated and tortured for allegedly giving secret information to the Germans.

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However, the deeper Major Picquard looks into the case, the more he is certain that the wrong man is being punished. When he comes to the generals above him with near irrefutable proof that they have convicted an innocent man, Picquard is the one who finds himself in a similar situation: being hounded and scorned by military powers who will not accept that they were wrong. On pride alone, they refuse to set the innocent free.

I was absolutely riveted to this novel. How it is that I have not read anything written by Robert Harris before I do not know, but he has quickly leapt to a “must read” author for me, one whose books I am eager to go through from the very beginning. He masterfully tells the tale, with details exquisitely recorded, in such a way that before I know it I have read fifty pages.

I highly recommend this book based on the true story of Alfred Dreyfus in Paris during the 1890’s.

First Impressions by Charlie Lovett (and give-away)

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…I cannot help but be reminded of the dangers that befall those who succumb to their first impressions.

Sometimes, first impressions can be a good thing. I remember reading of Charlie Lovett’s book, The Bookman’s Tale, on Nadia’s blog and being delighted to win a copy of it for my own. When the chance to read his latest book, First Impressions, came my way I eagerly accepted this book based on my first impression of hearing about him months ago.

Even when Jane Austen warned readers long ago of the fallibility of first impressions; how wrong we can be when we trust our initial reaction.

This charming novel depicts a relationship between Jane Austen and a clergyman of 80 years of age. Theirs is a tremendous friendship based on literary pleasures. They love to read to each other, and they love to share in the development of characters Jane created in her books Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, and most importantly, Pride and Prejudice.

Balanced against this picturesque tableau is the present day life of Sophie Collingwood, a bibliophile of the first order. When her beloved Uncle Bertram is found dead, Sophie is thrust into discovering the true cause of his death as she cannot believe that he simply fell down the stairs outside his home. It is a home which had been stacked from floor to ceiling, on every conceivable horizontal surface, with books. These were the treasures that he shared with Sophie all her growing up. They were to become her own library in due time.

But when she takes residence in her uncle’s apartment, which had been left to her, she discovers that all the furniture, and worse, all the books, have been sold. More distressing than that is the way that she has received requests from two men, each of whom want a second edition of the book which had been written by Jane Austen’s friend.

Sophie embarks on a quest to answer the question of why “the second edition of a painfully dull book of allegories merited all this cloak and dagger intrigue.” For she is seduced by a handsome man named Winston, while fending off threats from another man named Smedley, and wondering how much a third man, named Eric, really means to her.

This is a book which imagines a thrilling scenario behind the story of Pride and Prejudice, casting doubt on Jane Austen as the true author, while immersing the reader into the lives of fellow bibliophiles all the while. One feels at home in the company of Sophie and her uncle, Jane and her friend, and the old book shops filled with dust motes and musty smells. One longs to reread a favorite Jane Austen novel upon finishing this book which has fleshed her out so well.

Penguin books has given me the opportunity to give away this book, plus a classic copy of Pride and Prejudice, to one reader (U.S./Canada only, please). If you would like to enter in the give-away, simply leave a comment with your favorite Jane Austen novel.

(Congratulations to Heidi who has won a copy from the publisher!)

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

In an era, and a country, where crime is supposed to be non-existent because “theory dictated that there was more work, more fairness, less exploitation”, we find a Russia which is truly terrifying.

I have always been fascinated with Russia. I took almost enough Russian literature in university to have a minor in it. I suspect that in many ways, I have glorified this land of ice and snow, hand-painted boxes, and tortured writers. I probably have overlooked most of the suffering and pain that its citizens have endured.

The bleakness of Russia in the 1950’s comes alive in this brilliant mystery. It is written with layers of paranoia over layers of deception. It is written with the characters’ fear and trembling, only mirrored by those in charge because they realize their lives are no different. Everyone is an accusation away from a life of exile. Or, torture.

If you finished Gone Girl (or The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affairwith a sigh of disappointment, as I did, you need to read Child 44. It is a true mystery, an exquisitely wrought thriller with no games played at the reader’s expense.

The Silent Wife by A. S. A. Harrison

I like the setting in Chicago with all it’s familiar places such as the Loop, Navy Pier, Printers Row,  and the Drake Hotel.
I like the backdrop of psychology not only in the heroine’s profession, but also in the exploration of Adler’s three life goals. “That Adler’s school is pragmatic and socially atuned is nowhere quite so evident as in his three main life tasks, which he identified as hallmarks of mental health: 1) the experience and expression of love, 2) the development of friendships and social ties, and 3) engagement in meaningful work.” (p. 130)
I like the way the reader is a casual, but engaged, observer. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl felt like it was constantly playing tricks on me for the sake of keeping me guessing. A. S. A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife has a crescendo slowly building to a completely unexpected, but believable, conclusion.
I like reading about strong women and seeing how they’ve coped with life’s adversities. Even if it is in a way I wouldn’t choose for myself.
I first heard of The Silent Wife when I read about it on Nadia’s blog, A Bookish Way of Life. Our reading likes are so compatible, and this book which came highly recommended by her is no exception. Read it for a thriller, read it for its multi-layered plot, and read it to see all the ways in which this wife is silent.

The Potter’s Field by Andrea Camilleri

Ever since I read about Italian author Andrea Camilleri on A Common Reader’s blog, I’ve wanted to read a mystery written by him. Although the novel Tom reviewed was The Age of Doubt, I found The Potter’s Field at our local library and brought it home to make Andrea’s acquaintance.

I like him! His writing is so authentic, and rugged, and unpretentious. He takes me to Italy as easily as Air Italia, where I am breathing in the sea air and eating the cuisine as surely as if I was there in person. In fact, I enjoyed the atmosphere he created possibly more than the plot, which in The Potter’s Field involved the Mafia, a beautiful woman and betrayal. Wonderful stuff for any mystery, let alone an Italian one.

“Meanwhile, this murder had been committed, or ordered–which amounted to the same thing–by someone who still operated in observance of the rules of the ‘old’ Mafia.

The answer was simple: Because the new Mafia fired their guns pell-mell and in every direction, at old folks and kids, wherever and whenever, and never deigned to give a reason or explanation for what they did.

With the old Mafia, it was different. They explained, informed, and clarified. Not aloud, of course, or in print. No. But through signs.

The old Mafia were experts in semiology, the science of signs used to communicate. Murdered with a thorny branch of prickly pear placed on the body? We did it because he pricked us one too many times with his thorns and troubles. Murdered with a rock inside his mouth? We did it because he talked too much. Murdered with both hands cut off? We did because we caught him with his hands in the cookie jar. Murdered with his balls shoved into his mouth? We did it because he was f***ing someone he shouldn’t have been…” and so on.

And, the characters are so likable! One absolutely wants to know Inspector Montalbano, and I especially want to meet Catarella, personally in person, who works for him and talks like this:

“Ahhh Chief Chief!” said Catarella, racing out of his closet, “I gots a litter f”yiz I’s asposta give yiz poissonally in poisson.”

Looking around himself with a conspiratorial air, he pulled an envelope out of his pocket and handed it to the inspector.

If this book is any indication of the series, it’s one I want to become more familiar with. I liked everything I read in Camilleri’s work.

Uniform Justice by Donna Leon

I was immediately entranced by Commissario Brunetti when I read about him in Donna Leon’s first novel, Death in La Fenice. I see him as a rather more intelligent Inspector Clouseau, an untraditional detective who is committed to his wife and family, his job, and ultimately truth. (Although you could never say that Brunetti is a bumbling fool.)
But, what I really love about Donna Leon’s novels are the way that she captures Venice. I feel as if I am walking through the streets, riding on the vaporettos, stepping from the gondolas or crossing the bridges. Her description is so spot on, you can almost smell the canals, or better yet, the ristorante.
Uniform Justice opens with a death at the San Martino military academy in Venice. Suicide or murder, no one is quite sure, although many political powers are all too willing to suggest the former and try to stop Brunetti’s investigation into the later. Justice prevails, however, at least in determining the cause of death. And in a very unusual conclusion, it is left to the boy’s father to mete out justice. Or, not.
I thought this novel was somehow gentle, and atmospheric, and I almost didn’t write a post about it until I read Steven Berry’s Venetian Betrayal. Like Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code, without his utter disregard for scripture, Berry’s novel is fast paced.  I enjoyed the premise, that Alexander the Great had died with the formula for a healing medicine which several current day powers search for. But, like Gone Girl, after a certain point I tired of the drama; the action began to feel contrived simply to carry the story to its conclusion.
Given the choice between a fast paced thriller, and Donna Leon’s gentle building of a case with an investigator of character, I’ll take the later.
These two novels are what I’ve read so far for the Venice in February 2013 Challenge.

Disgrace by Jussi Adler-Olsen

“People saw only her cracked lips and filthy hair. Edging away from the repulsive bundle in her hands and her sleeves stained brown by dried blood, they didn’t see a fever ravaged fellow human in need. They didn’t see a person falling to pieces.”
Disgrace is the second in the Department Q series, following the prequel Mercy. It is everything that those who love Nordic crime could desire: tension, suffering, action and mystery. We follow Detective Carl Mørck through the investigation to solve six murders accompanied by his loyal and somewhat inept assistant, Assad. We follow Kimmie who has assumed the identity of a homeless woman because that is the only choice left to her by those more powerful than she. And we follow with mounting horror the antics of her former classmates: Ditlev, Kristian, Torsten, Ulrick and Bjarne. These prestigious business men hide a gruesome past behind a facade of success in modern day Copenhagen. But they cannot escape being the hunted, when once they were the hunters.
Thanks to Penguin UK for sending me this copy to review.

Defending Jacob by William Landay

A jury could only declare my son “not guilty,” never “innocent.” The stink would never leave us. I doubted I would ever walk into a courtroom again as a lawyer. But things were racing too fast to linger over the past or future. There was only now.

When Ben Rifkin is found stabbed three times in the chest, his schoolmate Jacob Barber quickly becomes the murder suspect. Jacob’s father, Assistant Defense Attorney Andy Barber, tells the story from the point of view as a lawyer and as a father. It is a compelling, and shocking ride, through which I was riveted at every turn.

The clues start piling up against Jacob quite quickly. There is a knife found in his bedroom which Jacob bought because it “was cool”; there is a fingerprint on the victim’s sweatshirt that is identified as Jacob’s. But of course, didn’t he stop to see if he could help Ben when he found him lying face down in the leaves? There is a story that Jacob has written, and published on Facebook, which describes in eerily accurate detail the specifics of the murder. Which only a murderer could know. Yet how can a parent believe his son is a killer?

Interspersed with the account of Jacob’s defense in the courtroom, is the trial which the family endures in their own home. The parents suffer terribly: their reputation in the town, their careers, their marriage, and even their own doubts about their son’s culpability. Isn’t it possible that Andy’s genetic history of violence could be passed down to their son? Andy visits his father, in jail for murder, and finds his father comes through for them in his own way. For which Andy and his wife are grateful.

But, it isn’t over until one turns the last page. Even when the case is ‘resolved’, the question remains: who is innocent? And worse yet, what do we do with our doubts? I found Defending Jacob to be an incredible book, well written and unforgettable.