20 February 2018

Library Limelights 153

Camilla Ceder. Frozen Moment. UK: Phoenix Paperback/Orion House, 2011.
Christian Tell, lead homicide detective, is a two-dimensional character for some time; he personifies the "emotionally inaccessible" cop often found in someone whose life is the job. The unusual killing of a man in a rural area seems devoid of any motive, but a second murder by the same method instigates a wide search to link the two victims. Tell's guilt over becoming personally involved with Seja, a witness in the first case, opens up more flesh and blood in his character. At the same time, we are following the story of events sixteen years earlier, revolving around quiet teenager Maya; we know somehow the police will have to connect the threads. Seja, as a budding journalist, finds herself irresistibly drawn toward the search thanks to a resurfacing but vague memory.

Finally learning that a third murder is likely to happen, the police approach from different angles. Ultimately Seja is endangered. Each investigator on the team has his or her domestic problems; Tell greatly admires his boss Östergren, and is deeply shaken when she has a crisis. So grows his awareness that immersion in the job could cost him the chance of having a real life ‒ whether he wants one or not. Guilt of some sort is a noticeable element among various depicted personae. My only complaint (it also holds for some other authors) is that more dialogue interaction could have been used to reveal depth of character. Oh. ... And a comparison to Lizbeth Salander is highly fanciful.

As far as they are concerned she has disappeared in a puff of smoke. (20)
Being seventeen means that every step is for ever. (23)
As a general rule, Maya's mother had always found it difficult to distinguish where she ended and other people began. (61-2)
"You have your work, and that means you know who you are." (373)

Therapy choices:
Was this woman a physiotherapist or a fortune teller? And it got worse as she massaged Beckman's wronged body with alternate hard and soft strokes. 
"Unspoken truths often settle in the muscles and turn into pain. Things you want to say, but don't have the courage. Particularly in the musculature at the back of the neck and in the face. Many people experience pain in the jaw and even the teeth. When the mouth refuses to form those liberating words, they gather around it like an indefinable pain that refuses to go away. There are tensions in your body that have turned into inflammations. If you're not careful, you could end up with a chronic condition. It's also not unusual for a person to burst into tears when someone touches them, if they're not used to it. Linking the body to the brain." 
Beckman never went back. Instead she went to a doctor and got a prescription for Diclofenac. (79)

Hangover morning:
"I don't live far away," he said. "We're going to freeze to death." 
And it was true. In any case, she wasn't exactly capable of driving. 
Ending up in bed wasn't part of the plan. It was, he thought on the morning of Christmas Eve as the pale sun stabbed him in the eye, the result of poor judgement followed by severe intoxication. This could cost him dear and would be difficult to explain to his colleagues. And to Östergren, if the gossip got that far. And it probably would, given that the police station was like one big coffee morning.  
... He had always found these unwritten rules difficult to understand: the game that had to be played at the beginning of a relationship. The precisely measured amount of give and take a man must master, in order to avoid being perceived as an arrogant bastard with intimacy problems, or a suffocating control freak. (100-101)

Personal survival strategy:

When a murder enquiry wasn't going anywhere it stressed him out; it was always the same. As time passed, he felt a personal sense of responsibility that the crime hadn't been cleaned up. Responsibility to the relatives, of course. But also to his colleagues and superiors. He slept without dreaming. He noticed that he was thinking differently. He made an effort to think in wide circles around the investigation, and often did so at the expense of other mental activity. He became more brusque in his dealings with people. Rational. Emotionally muted, in order to use his energy where it was needed most. What was left was a fairly isolated individual; he was well aware of that. After all, nobody said that being aware of your faults meant you could change them. And he wasn't sure he even wanted to change. Like his father, he had found a strategy for survival that seemed to work. (262-3)

Shari Lapena. The Couple Next Door. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2016.
Anne and Marco Conti's baby is suddenly gone — whether misplaced, lost, kidnapped, or killed. Sympathy, right? The first fifty pages or so evoked only my impatience with this pathetic, boring couple who left their child alone at home while they partied next door. Fortunately the story picked up before I quit. Anne has been in a postpartum depression ‒ only the first of her secrets to appear ‒ resenting her flamboyantly attractive neighbour Cynthia. Marco's business status is iffy, and he hates his arrogant, wealthy father-in-law who dotes on the baby Cora. That's enough for Detective Rasbach to consider both of them suspicious.

Nearly all is told through Anne's or Marco's eyes but Rasbach is forming his own theories based on the timing of events that night. If it's a ransom case, a demand is slow to arrive. Whether Cora is alive or dead is Anne's constantly revolving nightmare. The breakdown of two rather ordinary people through stages of guilt, blame, shame, rage, and fear proceeds apace; it's not only the missing baby, it's the anguished effort to conceal some information. Anne's family is as much a hindrance as a help. The next door neighbours are oddly quiet. Lapena's cool, dispassionate style is perfectly suited to the milieu for building suspense. I predict, not too far off: the movie.

"My parents are very hard to please, and they're very controlling." (117)
Marco's shirt is already sticking to his back as he hits the highway. (148)

Two-liner: "Postpartum depression is not the same thing as postpartum psychosis. I am clearly not psychotic, Detective." (116)

Shame and desperation:
But Anne and Marco need the media to take an interest. They need Cora's face plastered all over the newspapers, the TV, the Internet. You can't just take a baby out of someone else's house in the middle of the night and have no one notice. It's a busy neighborhood. Surely someone will come forward with information. Anne and Marco must do this, even thought they know they'll be the target of some nasty press once it all comes out. They are the parents who abandoned their baby, left her home alone, an infant. And now someone has her. They are a Movie of the Week. (47)

A different issue:
"What's up?" Marco says. He wants to keep this short. 
"I have something I want to talk to you about," Cynthia says, a little more businesslike. "Can you come by the house?" 
"Why? Do you want to apologize?" 
"Apologize?" She sounds surprised. 
"For lying to the police. For telling them that I came on to you when we both know you came on to me." 
"I'm sorry about that. I did lie," she says, with an attempt at playfulness. 
"What the fuck? You're sorry? Do you have any idea how much trouble you've caused me?" 
"Can we discuss it?" She's not playful anymore. 
"Why do we need to discuss it?" 
"I'll explain when you get here," Cynthia says, and abruptly hangs up the phone. (194)

Fallout effect:
Anne thinks she hears her baby crying. Cora must be just waking up from her nap. She peels off her gardening gloves and goes quickly inside and washes her hands at the kitchen sink. She can hear Cora upstairs in her crib, crying for her. "Just a minute, sweetheart," she calls. "I'll be right there." She feels happy. 
Anne rushes upstairs to get her baby, humming a little. She goes into the nursery. Everything looks the same, but the crib is empty. She suddenly remembers, and it's like being violently swept out to sea. She collapses into the nursing chair. 
She's not right—she knows she's not well. She should call someone. Her mother. But she doesn't. Instead she rocks herself back and forth in the chair. 
She would like to blame Cynthia for all her problems, but she knows Cynthia doesn't have her baby. (244-5)

Stefan Ahnhem. The Ninth Grave. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2016.
Such a brilliant but brutal tale, extremely challenging (for the cops and the reader) but compelling, impossible to put down. Swedish cops Fabian Risk and Malin Rehnberg are after a cruel serial killer; Danish cop Dunja Hougaard also struggles with a series of mutilated victims. Both police forces, with great difficulty, eventually backtrack to their respective killers who have been ingeniously elusive. Both cases are pronounced solved and closed by superior officers. And yet, Fabian and Dunja separately risk their jobs to go even further; the chance of an overlap is agonizing for the reader because of snippets inserted from a deus ex machina. Ultimately, that premise for motive may be the book's only weak point.

Two strong policewomen with sharp insights share centre stage, one pregnant and one prey to sexual harassment (couldn't be more timely). A map of the area would have been useful — so many geographic place names; sorting out Helsingborg and Helsingør is just one of the confusing spots. But twists and surprises galore. In the end, Fabian disappoints himself; redemption is out of the question but he will return. Love the detectives, hate the grisly moments ... not all sadistic details of the victims were necessary, thank you! Yet the author has to be top-ranked among Scandi-noir writers.

Panic spread like a forest fire through her body. (74)
The discrepancies were the common denominator. (136)
He was quite unprepared for the tears that suddenly started dripping from his eyes onto the floor. (272)
"She said that living with you is like living with an empty shell or a shed skin." (491)

The serial theory:
"If you would let me finish what I'm saying, maybe you would get your vision back and see that there's not only a connection, but that it actually seems to be the same perpetrator." 
Edelman set his cup down again, the lump of sugar still between his teeth. It's lucky she's pregnant, thought Fabian. Neither he nor any of the others would have gotten away with that tone, especially not after a press conference, which, nine times out of ten, made Edelman extra touchy. 
"What do you think, Fabian?" Malin gave him a look that suggested his very survival depended on his agreement. 
Fabian nodded, even if he really didn't know what to think. As Malin was saying, there certainly were things that suggested they were dealing with the same perpetrator, but he couldn't understand how, and in a way he felt just as blind as Edelman. He'd tried gettig in touch with Hillevi Stubbs to see if she'd discovered any technical leads that might reinforce their theory, but she had her phone turned off, which she often did when there was a lot going on. (168-9)

A suspect:
"Oh no, not another crazy. And he's been released?" 
"He's been out for three years and four months." 
"So he's been declared competent?" asked Malin, shaking her head. "As if a little medicine and therapy can help anyone capable of these crimes." 
"As if," said Tomas. "The rest of the medical world accepts that a paralyzed lower body will always be paralyzed, but psychology is different. Everyone can get healthier with a little treatment, regardless of how disabled they are." 
Malin looked at Tomas with a surprised expression. "Did you think of that yourself, or did you read a newspaper for the first time?" (178)

Dunja looks east:
She looked beyond the wet dock and the boats that were moored along the quay opposite towards the back side of Kronberg Castle — the last outpost of the East. 
She often reflected on this when she looked out over the Sound and saw Sweden towering up on the opposite side. Their neighbouring country was officially neutral and undoubtedly the Swedes leaned more toward the West in their basic values, but the sensibilities of the East had always been apparent with all their rules, state liquor stores, and the like. 
But her feelings were completely different this time. Instead of thinking the Swedes were hopelessly behind Denmark, she now thought they were further ahead. She didn't know if this shift was caused by meeting that very pregnant policewoman from Sweden, or the fact that she'd just set foot in the country for the first time only a couple of days ago. All she knew for sure was that, despite her experiences in Kävlinge, she felt an increasingly strong desire to go there again. (384)

15 February 2018

FEC News

Fading Entertainers Centre (FEC) requires its own space. The FECsters have grown awfully unruly, making unreasonable demands for attention. Just the other day, Mr Obsessive-Compulsive (OC) of the Inmates Committee (IC) dropped the phrase: a clean sweep. Ms Throat goes around sulkily muttering time to go ... but then again, that might just be her personal mantra. Luther and Gonzo of all people ‒ together, that is  were heard conspiring that change is needed. Sheila and Luanna volunteered to make the posters to go in the elevators. When they figure out what it is they want. To change. Within the unintentionally pliable parameters erected for them by Upper Levels, of course.

Regardless, this kind of passive-aggression can't be ignored. Possibly the IC is feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of its mandate. Or perhaps something more sinister lurks beneath their remarks. Change is good. It might even mean progress of a sort. When Bella comes back from the hospital the entire IC can brainstorm to their hearts' content, provided Ophelia gets busy in the communal kitchen beforehand. Alcohol will not officially be involved.

FEC Foolishness will likely (slowly) transform itself elsewhere. Website? E-book? Slowly fade like its namesakes? Trash prospect? If there exists a person of interest curious reader, then don't hesitate to voice your question, comment, or opinion below. Nothing goes unheeded.

08 February 2018

Library Limelights 152

Michael Connelly. Two Kinds of Truth. USA: Little, Brown and Company/Hachette, 2017.
Aging somewhere north of 65 is not slowing down Harry Bosch. In fact, he's more active than ever as a volunteer, working two cases simultaneously. His San Fernando Valley PD colleagues are aghast when he agrees to go undercover into an illicit prescription drug network run by the notorious drug lord Santos. His scary, ultimate success does not override the dismally depressing epidemic of "hillbilly heroin" addiction, the biggest growth industry in southern California. The second case brings some of Harry's former LAPD colleagues to the fore: Lucia Soto and Jerry Edgar. Much to his anger, Harry is being accused of planting evidence in an old case that will release a scumbag convict from death row.

Harry's reputation is destroyed in the media. It's the lowest point imaginable: questioning his own previously vaunted detective skills. If he missed or misinterpreted evidence in one case, what does that do to all the cases he solved? Will his fellow cops believe he didn't do it? One truth is Harry's own fundamental honesty; another "truth" is that which is manipulated by self-serving authorities. We're certain that Harry will prevail, with the canny help of his non-conformist half-brother, the lawyer Mickey Haller. Together they propose to uncover a conspiracy, a matter that may not even be admitted into court. This is Connelly's typical police and court procedural cum laude. An ambiguous scene flashes past at the end, yet Harry revives.

Word: entropy - "degree of disorder or randomness" in a system; lack of predictability

There was a saying in police work, that places were safe until they weren't. (134)
The seeds were planted thousands of miles away by faceless men of greed and violence. (329)
As much as he trusted his half brother, passing the responsibility to someone else left him sweating in a cold room. (335)

Listen up:
"I think the only one with a problem here is you, Harry."Bosch had nothing to say to that. He sensed that something had changed in her view of him. He had fallen in her eyes, and she had sympathy for him but not the respect she'd once had. He was missing something here. He had to get back to the investigative file he knew she had stuffed into his mailbox, whether she acknowledged it or not. He now had to consider that she had done so not to help him but to warn him about what lay ahead. 
"Listen to me," Soto said. "I'm putting my neck out here for you because...because we were partners. You need to let this play out without setting a fire. If you don't, you are going to get hurt in a big way." 
"You don't think it's going to hurt in a big way to see that guy—that killer—walk out of San Quentin a free man?" (78-9)

History revisited:
Bosch was fresh back from war in Southeast Asia. When he entered the house he saw a boy of about five or six standing with a housekeeper. He knew then that he had a half brother. A month later he stood on a hillside and watched as their father was put into the ground. 
"Yes," Bosch said. "That was a long time ago." 
"Well," Siegel said. "For me everything was a long time ago. The longer you live, the more you can't believe how things change." (159)

Kicking addiction:
" ... In six weeks I accumulated over a thousand pills. That's when I made the deal with myself. When those pills ran out, I was going to rise up and beat it. And I did." 
"I'm glad you did, Cisco." 
"Fucking A. Me, too." 
"So no help from the V.A.?" 
"Fuck them, the docs at the V.A. were the ones got me hooked in the first place after my surgeries. Then they cut me loose and I'm on the street, strung out, trying to keep a job, trying to keep my wife. Fuck the V.A. I'll never go back to them." 
The story was not surprising to Bosch. It was the story of the epidemic. People start out hurt and just want to kill the pain and get better. Then they're hooked and need more than the prescriptions allow. People like Santos fill the space, and there is no turning back. (175-6)

Louise Penny. The Long Way Home. USA: Minotaur Books/St Martin's Press, 2014.
Armand Gamache is retired as Quebec's chief inspector of homicide, still recovering physically and mentally from a near-death experience. His slow rehab is disturbed when he learns that his friend and neighbour Clara wants to search for her missing artist husband Peter. And so begins Gamache's new "case" with a team that includes his wife, his son-in-law Beauvoir, and local bookseller cum psychologist Myrna. Their names and their village of Three Pines will be familiar to the legion of Penny fans. Tracking Peter's year away from home is challenging; seeking new directions for his painting seemed to be his impetus. Along the way the team meets more artistes and increasingly sinister clues.

I'm not the biggest fan of Penny, but there's no denying her immense appeal. Quebec small town and wilderness ambience are highly visual; most of the characters are endearing (Ruth is irresistible). It's a terrific story with the usual rich literary sprinklings. Structurally, the book is admirably perfect. But personally, I find the artistic and metaphysical metaphors to the point of overdone, almost belaboured. With no less than four artists involved, we have muses and magic and cosmic speculation and psychic reconstruction galore. Is it that difficult for a man to examine and change his safe, selfish path through life? There's a hint that a vaguely bipolar state is necessary to be successfully creative; we feel for Gamache's tender recovery.

The Chief had walked away with a smile, knowing he'd completely messed with Beauvoir's mind. (99)
Was the final fear that, in losing his fears, he would also lose his joy? (122)

Turmoil shook loose all sorts of unpleasant truths. But it took peace to examine them. (4)
They had to face each other. And tell each other the truth. (329)

A practical man:
When Beauvoir had first met these people, and this village, he knew little about art and what he knew was more than he found useful. But after many years of exposure to the art world, he'd become interested. Sort of. 
What mostly interested him wasn't the art, but the environment. The infighting. The casual cruelty. The hypocrisy. The ugly business of selling beautiful creations. 
And how that ugliness sometimes grew into crime. And how the crime sometimes festered into murder. Sometimes. (137)

Gamache reflecting:
It was how Clara described her first attempt at a painting. No, not a mess, it was something else. A dog's breakfast. Ruth had called it that and Clara had agreed. Ruth tried to capture feelings in her poetry. Clara tried with color and subject to give form to feelings. 
It was messy. Unruly. Risky. Scary. So much could go wrong. Failure was always close at hand. But so was brilliance. 
Peter Morrow took no risks. He neither failed nor succeeded. There were no valleys, but neither were there mountains. Peter's landscape was flat. An endless, predictable desert. 
How shattering it must have been, then, to have played it safe all his life and been expelled anyway. From home. From his career.What would a person do when the tried-and-true was no longer true? (122)

Leader of the search:
"Clara's in charge. She knows what she's doing." 
"She once ate potpourri thinking it was chips," said Jean-Guy. "She took a bath in soup, thinking it was bath salts. She turned a vacuum cleaner into a sculpture. She has no idea what she's doing." 
Gamache smiled. "At least if it all goes south, we have someone else to blame for once." (287)

Yrsa Sigurdardottir. Ashes to Dust. UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 2011.
A bit battered, the copy of the book I received, but didn't affect the wholly refreshing nature of the tale within. The ashes of the title refer to a historic volcanic eruption in 1973 on the main island of the Westman group lying off Iceland's south coast, spewing lava and ash that destroyed so many homes. That occurrence covered up, literally, evidence of puzzling events at the same time, now coming to the fore. Lawyer Thora Gudmundsdottir is hired to defend Markus Magnusson on suspicion of murder when ash-covered skeletons are found in the basement of his ruined family home. Then Markus' childhood sweetheart Alda suffers a macabre death and both Thora and the police wonder if there is a connection.

Thora definitely puts out more effort than the cops to investigate alternative suspects. It's a bizarre maze after the lapse of several generations of family history and island secrets. A young girl Tinna is prey to anorexic anguish; Markus' father Magnus is just as trapped in dementia; accusations of rape hover over a few heads; the reputation of a nurse is in jeopardy. How will Thora ever find witnesses who are willing to talk? So many unexplained old mysteries; so many evasive characters. Squeamish alert: includes a graphic death and a head in a box. Leading her determined heroine through some challenging hoops and spectacular scenery, the author is clearly a winner.

It was absolutely indisputable ‒ four Icelanders simply could not have vanished without being missed. (89-90)
Those who are not used to hiding the truth always give themselves away. (123)
Agust tended toward the melodramatic, and she had no desire to nourish her own anxiety with his paranoia. (176)
The balls of Thora's feet began to ache in sympathy again, the woman's stilettos were so high. (323)

Two-liner: "I'm like a puffin. I can't take off unless I've got the sea in my sight." (78)

Digging out:
"For a while they were removing nearly ten thousand cubic metres of ash from the town every day. Landa Church was partly buried," said Leifur, pointing in the direction of the imposing but unostentatious chapel standing next to the cemetery. "A few houses were dug up, next to the ones where the current excavation is taking place." It was clear to Thora that she had to learn more about the eruption if she didn't want to waste all her time uncovering facts that were already common knowledge. She had brought the book Gylfi got from the library, and she could start reading it in her hotel room that evening. (68)

Medical discretion:
"Do you mean that Alda didn't leave on good terms?" said Thora. 
"That's actually what I was led to understand in my conversation with the head nurse." 
"Good and not so good," said Bjargey, enigmatically. "A particular situation came up that she and the department couldn't see eye to eye on, which led to an agreement that she should take a leave of absence until the matter was resolved." She fiddled again with her hair-clip, although it now appeared to be securely fastened. "The decision was reached without acrimony. I'm convinced that Alda would have come back if things hadn't gone as they did." 
"I see," said Thora. "You said the investigation was ongoing both here in the hospital and elsewhere. Are you talking about a police investigation or a liability claim?" She tried to imagine crimes one could commit in a hospital. "Did Alda make a mistake n her work? Did she steal drugs? Or ..." (185-6)

Maybe the woman wanted her to count sheep, like cartoon characters did. Tinna closed her eyes and tried it. In her mind's eye, one, two, three sheep hopped over a green-painted fence. The door to the room opened and closed with a faint thud. The woman had probably gone, but Tinna didn't want to ruin the sheep-race by opening her eyes and looking. She focused again on the fence and the sheep. It wasn't going well. The sheep were disgustingly fat, and the fourth one couldn't jump at all. It stood by the fence, breathless and panting. Then it started to expand, and soon its snout disappeared into its white belly, which stretched wider and wider until finally there was a loud bang as it burst. Blood and guts flew everywhere. Tinna opened her eyes quickly to rid herself of this vision. She was alone in the room. Her breasts heaved up and down. This was what awaited her if she didn't get out of here. She would get fatter and fatter until she blew up. (293)

The client's family:
"Don't you want to know what I found in the archive?" asked her secretary, sucking at her straw thirstily. "They opened it for me. That Leifur clearly has the town in his pocket. All I had to do was say his name and they pulled out the keys." 
"Yes, it's in everyone's interest to keep him happy," Thora said. "So what did you find? It's good that one of us is making progress, because meeting Markus' parents did me little good. His father was away with the fairies and his mother was such a dry old stick that she sucked all the moisture out of the air. The only thing I got out of it was some gibberish about a falcon and a child, and a headache from the old woman's perfume. ..." (264-5)

30 January 2018

Library Limelights 151

James Crumley. The Wrong Case. 1975. USA: First Vintage Books Edition, 1986.
Crumley's not for the faint of heart or weak sensibilities. It's a long time since I read one of his works; Crumley was critically celebrated by his peers as an exemplar of the hard-boiled private-eye genre. This book introduced one of his recurring characters: Milton Milodragovitch, better known as Milo, the narrator. He's a terrible excuse for a P.I., conducting sleazy divorce work when he's not drinking at his favourite dump of a bar. And even when he is. Then Helen comes to his office, he's smitten, and the search for her missing brother spirals out of control in the not-so-sleepy western mountain town. Helen comes across as a total flake ‒ each to his own ‒ and turns out she has history with Milo's best friend Dick.

Milo doesn't mind getting beat up or shooting a few people; moralizing or much self-reflection are not something he practises regularly. The pages are filled with pained alcoholics, jaded bartenders, hippy remnants, and drug dealers that the one stalwart cop in town, Jamison, tries to manage if not arrest. Despite Milo's pointless, depressing life amidst a bevy of equally self-destructive pals, Crumley reaches poetic altitudes in character and environment descriptions. Dark, but darkly entertaining. One of Crumley's books is enough to last a long time.

Age and sorrow, those were my only assets, my largest liabilities. (4)
Her pain and worry was real, and it dangled between us like a frayed empty sleeve. (14)
Dick had never recovered from a strong dose of college basketball. (29)
Sometimes I thought that I had to either play father or son to every drunk in town. (180)

Rules of engagement:
In the book it says to let the client talk, to listen carefully and take copious notes, and making certain that when you do speak, to be sure to reveal your perception and intelligence, your deep understanding of human behavior, and that way the client will have the utmost confidence in your abilities, etc. But I always seemed to do it this other way: stagger them with wit, ply them with romance and whiskey sours, and convince them that I wouldn't be able to eat that night unless they paid me a large retainer. Sometimes it worked. (12-13)

Renewing the rules:
Two hours later, which I spent alternating between the steam room and the sauna at the Elks Club, with occasional forays into the whirlpool and the bar, I made it to the office, slightly tipsy but functional, red as a boiled lobster. The dark glasses I'd borrowed from the Elks Club bartender felt silly. I left them on my desk, then wandered down the hall to harass my cousin the dentist for a heavy vitamin shot. He wasn't there. That's how I found out it was Sunday. I was back in the office, hitting the bottle when Helen came in the open door. 
"Lady, I get double-time on Sundays and national holidays," I said, "and it started forty-five minutes ago." (69-70)

A pathetic man:
Once again, I had the feeling that Nickie was condescending to me, that there was some sort of antagonism seeping out of him. But I had always known that Nickie was unhappy behind all his smiles and glad-hands. As he stood up, trying to look calm and self-assured, his shoulders slumped beneath the weight of his coat, his neck bowed beneath the weight of his dyed hair, and his fingers kneaded belches out of his sunken chest. He couldn't hide the fatigue of a long life of being nobody, a fatigue I understood more than I wanted to. To be childlike might keep a man young, but to be treated like a child makes him old too soon. (123)

Leighton Gage. Blood of the Wicked. USA: Soho Press, 2008.
The land wars in Brazil are the background of this political thriller. When a bishop is assassinated in the city of Cascatas, elite Federal Police officer Mario Silva and his nephew Hector Costa are sent to solve it fast. Instead, there are too many candidates and no evidence; interviews with local priests are fruitless. Confusing the issue is the murderous revenge cycle between large landowners and the poor whose right to private but unused land is ignored by government. A brutal attack on members of the Landless Workers League finds Silva and Costa facing the corrupt power of local cop Colonel Ferraz and the arrogance of the Landowners Association; the latter employ capangas ‒ hired guns and bodyguards ‒ to protect their rich coffee, sugarcane, or tobacco properties. Some priests work quietly against the decadent system in sympathy with workers and desperate, drug-addicted street kids.

Sound dismal? Right. Life is cheap in the Brazilian third-world countryside; I lost count of the bodies in the general carnage. A few scenes to turn your stomach. In the end, the federal policemen hardly solve anything. But their integrity holds the story together. Events unspool of their own volition to conclusions that make sense, if not satisfaction. A morality tale of sorts where no-one is innocent, where evil perpetuates itself. Gage wrote several more novels featuring Silva and Costa before his death in 2013. [An off of writer]

If you're only willing to pay peanuts, what you're going to get is monkeys. (60)
"If he was an elevator operator, you'd have to bribe him to let you off on the right floor." (106)
"What's going to happen now is in God's hands, not yours." (209)

Orders coming from the top:
"You're my man for criminal matters, and this is clearly a criminal matter. Put a stop to it," the director said, just as if Silva could, and should. "I have no sympathy for Pillar and his crowd, but we can't just stand idly by while people go around killing people. Where the hell do those landowners think they are, Dodd's City?" 
Silva though Sampaio probably meant Dodge City, but maybe not. Maybe there actually was a place called Dodd's City. 
"The minister's going to call the Governor of São Paulo,"the director went on, "and he'll talk him into requesting our help in the investigation of the bishop's murder. And while you're there, you'd better sniff around and see what you can learn about who killed that activist. It might help to keep Pillar off our backs." 
While you're there? Silva didn't like the sound of that. (17)

Favela conditions:
Inside, the shack smelled of lamp oil, sweat, and human excrement. Arnaldo remembered that places like these didn't have toilets. They dug holes in a corner and used that. covering the holes with boards, sometimes sprinkling lime if they could afford it. They'd fetch their water from a community spigot. Electricity, if any, would come from an illegal tap. 
There were no windows. In the dim light, he could make out that the interior was nothing more than one small room. Three children, the oldest about six or seven, and the youngest no more than two, lay entangled on the bed like a litter of cats. The bed was made of jute coffee bags, sewn together and stuffed with something. There was a single, three-legged stool, and there were three wooden crates, but no other furniture. One of the crates supported a small black-and-white television set with a rabbit-ear antenna. (202)

One theory:
"Do you remember the last sermon Dom Felipe delivered in your old church?" 
Gaspar nodded. 
"'The Blood of the Wicked,' he called it. It concerned the murder of Azevedo, the league activist. He asked people to come forward. Not unlike what Orlando Muniz is doing, don't you agree?" 
"No, Father, I don't agree. The bishop, to my knowledge, didn't mention money." 
"Well, that's true. He didn't." 
"I gather you disagree with Father Francisco." 
"I most certainly do. The landowners of Cascatas are pillars of the community. None of them would stoop to violence." 
"There's just one thing wrong with that argument, Father." 
"What's that, Chief Inspector?" 
"Judging by what happened to Acevedo, one of them already did." (231-2)

Katherena Vermette. The Break. Toronto: House of Anansi Press Inc., 2016.
Her first novel for an astonishing author. Winner of three prestigious awards, it's not so much the content as it is Vermette's exceptional, warm, powerful writing. Winnipeg's North End, blue collar Jewish enclave when I lived there, now has a considerable Metis/native community. Half a dozen women of different professions move a traumatic story forward; their lives are circumscribed by their mutual family relations. Young Emily is the victim of a hate crime; her experience is revealed through the voices in turn of her mother, grandmother, great-grandmother (Kookom), her aunts, her friend. And Emily herself ‒ the shining, naive tween.

Seldom have I read such empathy .. realistic, empathetic lives. The matriarchal setting is not accidental, reflecting native tradition. Urban life does not erase the need to re-charge on happy visits to "the bush," instilling the old ways in younger generations. A policeman new to the job, Tommy, questions his half-breed status: who is he exactly? He learns to deal with gangs, drug addicts, and casual, unthinking racism. But the women are together despite their individual vulnerabilities. Almost every line in this book is touching, important, quotable. Vermette is an outstanding Canadian talent.

She's got balls where I got only complicated girlie grey feelings about everything. (39)
My mother is a big believer in stating the obvious. (179)
Sometimes his attention is so nice, it's like all the cool kids saying hi to her at the same time. (214-5)
"Kids that are messed with get messed up." (298)

My workday wears on, but I can't concentrate. Instead, Friday afternoon stretches out in front of me — my files are not updated, and calls are not returned. Instead, I just watch the pink sky outside my office window. Lester is right, it is going to snow. The clouds seem to swell and give everything a long, dark shadow. Downtown blurs. 
I look at my files, all the poor, young children already with epic stories, their mothers mean or sad. The empty space where their fathers are supposed to be. Everything blurs. I can't seem to be a social worker right now, I think. I can only be a left woman. (36-7)

When you were born, it was like that. A deep breath. Before you came, I was so messed up and didn't think I even wanted you. I watched your aunty with little Louisa and thought I couldn't do that, all those things, not me. My hands didn't know how to wrap a little baby so tight in a blanket or tell when the bottle was warm enough. My heart had no room for all the space you would need. I didn't think I could do it. 
But when you came, I only had to look at you, and I knew. There wasn't even a feeling or maybe there's just not a word big enough for all that feeling. There was so much it filled me all the way up. It was something more than knowing. More. (81)

She should make a painting for Emily. Emily with her baby face, Emily stronger than she knows. Cheryl will put a strong wolf-skin coat, black with only touches of grey, around her little granddaughter to keep her safe. 
Cheryl breathes out and tries to give her granddaughter strength. Wolves teach humility — they teach that we are all in this together, all a part of the same whole. If something happens to one of them, they all feel it. Cheryl breathes out deep and warm, breathes in Emily's pain and gives her back all the strength she has. (118)

"Does it hurt, my granddaughter?" he asks in their language. 
"Not bad," she replies in English. She is too shy to speak their language to him. He'll know she is forgetting it, losing what she has always known. Her tongue doesn't turn the words over like it used to. They come out rough and bitten. 
Her Moshoom nods though because he knows, and stays on the floor holding her hand. (211)

Kookom (Flora):
I remember I am safe from Charlie, no more Charlie, Charlie long gone and long dead. 
Then I lie back down and miss that love. I miss Charlie and feel sorry about how broken he was after I left him. How he fell apart and died too young. I think of how much he loved me. I think of him and an old wind flows through my broken body, inside that place where Charlie had been, where he seeded our children and made me feel all of his love. I sweat hot for that kind of love, the kind I only knew once.

18 January 2018

Library Limelights 150

Graeme Macrae Burnet. His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae. Large print. USA: Thorndike Press, 2015.
Fiction ... it's fiction ... but so skillfully presented as historical truth that it made the Man Booker short list last year. Burnet allegedly uncovered the 1869 story when researching his ancestors in Wester Ross, Scotland, and it's written in nineteenth century style. Teenager Roddy Macrae murdered three people in his little village; he calmly admits to it. Waiting in jail for his trial, he pens his memoir of events as suggested by his lawyer, Sinclair — giving a full picture of life in a Highland village. Or is it full? Other documents relating to the tragedy and the trial indicate discrepancies or omissions in Roddy's account. His more than adequate literacy contrasts with his being verbally inarticulate, for example his awkward, mute feelings for neighbour Flora. It is puzzling to me that he says he is "close" to his sister yet oblivious to changes in her life.

One can easily understand how the hard circumstances of that time and place, as described by the boy, drove him to such an extreme. Yet the judges do not allow Roddy's memoir into evidence at the trial. Whether his family was maliciously persecuted by local authorities, Constable Mackenzie in particular, is viewed subjectively and differently by those involved. But there seems little doubt about the sour pall of inflexible, humourless Presbyterianism permeating Roddy's father and his home; equally palpable is the condescension of the "educated class." Opposing arguments about moral insanity by precursors of modern psychology bring the trial to a climax. No question, the book is a tour de force.

One-liners (from Roddy's memoir):
Archibald Ross replied that for folk like us there was no other ship but the hard ship. (95)
Ever since I was a child I have found it hard to dissemble. (165)
It was written in an elegant hand and headed with the words, underlined, "Notice of Eviction." (246)

One-liners (from others):
He sometimes seemed like he was in a world of his own. (359)
A pattern emerged whereby the Crown sought to establish rational motives for the murders, while Mr Sinclair attempted, with varying degrees of success, to portray the accused as not being in his right mind. (362)
"In summation, I would say without hesitation that the prisoner is derived from substandard physical stock." (432)

The parish minister:
I fear the wicked deeds lately committed in this parish only represent a bubbling to the surface of the natural state of savagism of the inhabitants of this place, a savagism that the Church has of late been successful in repressing. The history of these parts, it has been said, is stained with black and bloody crimes, and its people exhibit a certain wildness and indulgence. Such traits cannot be bred out in a matter of generations, and while the teachings of the Presbytery are a civilising influence, it is inevitable that now and again the old instincts come to the fore. (22-3)

The teacher:
Mr Gillies put down his pen and asked me what my plans were. It was not a question which a person from our parts would ask. Making plans was an offence against providence. I said nothing. Mr Gillies took off his little glasses.
"What I mean," he said, "is what do you intend to do when you finish school?"
"Only what is meant for me," I said.
Mr Gillies frowned. "And what do you think is meant for you?"
"I cannot say," I replied.
"Roddy, despite your best efforts to conceal them, God has granted you some uncommon gifts. It would be sinful not to make use of them."
I was surprised to hear Mr Gillies couch his argument in these terms as he was not generally given to religious talk. As I made no reply, he took a more direct approach.
"Have you thought of continuing your education? I have no doubt that you have the necessary ability to become a teacher or a minister or anything you choose."
Of course, I had considered no such thing, and said so.
"Perhaps you should discuss it with your parents," he said. "You may tell them that I believe you have the necessary potential."
"But I am required for the croft," I said. (50-1)

Village witness:
"Crofts are not divided up this way. Each family works their portion of land and it passes from one generation to the next."
"I see. So Mr Mackenzie's action was unprecedented?"
"It was vindictive."
"Ah!" said Mr. Gifford, as if he had finally succeeded in reaching the nub of the matter. "'Vindictive' is a strong word, Mr. Murchison. So rather than using his powers for the general good, Mr Mackenzie was perceived to be pursuing some kind of vendetta against Mr Macrae?"
"Correct." (358)

C.J. Tudor. The Chalk Man. "Advance reader's edition." USA: Crown Publishing/Penguin Random House, 2018.
A first-novel freebie from Bouchercon, what a find! It even involves kids and I don't mind! The story told by narrator Eddie flashes back and forth from adulthood to the days of five close childhood friends. In the carefree time of youth they invented their own code of chalk drawings to signal each other. The kids are portrayed as so natural that we are willingly captured. Yet secrets lurked in their families, in their own consciences then. A boy died; a girl died; a man died; and Eddie is still asking questions about the unsolved crimes thirty years later. His friends Hoppo and Gav live nearby; Nicky and Mickey have moved away.

Nowadays a strange but likeable young woman called Chloe is renting a room in Eddie's home. Then pieces of the past begin to manifest in disturbing ways. Issues of trust and honesty are paramount as Eddie tries to unwind old and new tangles. One of his old friends dies. The story is full of mysteries and becomes more complicated with each page. Parents ― the father endlessly seeking freelance writing jobs, the mother who runs an abortion clinic, the rigidly fundamentalist minister, the sad cleaning lady, and so on ― we can't be sure who is hiding what. The plot and characters move along so smoothly it's a master lesson in how to build suspense. C.J. Tudor ... more please!

There was a streak running through him that was as cold and ugly as the braces that ran around his mouth. (7)
Often, what comes with age is not wisdom but intolerance. (21)
There's nothing like dealing with another drunk to put you off the idea of getting wasted yourself. (122)
Despite my insomnia and sleepwalking, I am not a night creature, not really. (262)

Mickey seeks truth:
I stare at him. Then I shake my head. "No." 
"Just hear me out." 
"I'm not interested. I don't need to drag it all up again." 
"But I do." He throws back the bottle. "Look, for years I've tried not to think about what happened. I've been avoiding it. Shutting it away. Well, I've decided it's time to look at all that fear and guilt in the eye and deal with it." 
Personally, I have found it is much better to take your fears, lock them up in a nice, tightly shut box and shove them into the deepest, darkest corners of your mind. But each to their own. 
"And what about the rest of us? Have you thought about whether we want to face our fears, go back over everything that happened?" (60-1)

A milestone of passage:
Death happened to other people, not kids like us, not people we knew. Death was abstract and distant. Sean Cooper's funeral was probably the first time I understood that death is only ever a cool, sour breath away. His greatest trick is making you think he isn't there. And death has a lot of tricks up his cold, dark sleeve. (106)

Cynical Chloe:
She stares into her glass. "Friends, eh? More trouble than they're worth. Although not as bad as family." 
"I suppose," I say cautiously. 
"Oh, trust me. Friends, you can cut loose. Family, you never lose. They're always there, in the background, screwing with your mind."She throws back the gin and pours another. (121)

Losing your mind:
My own dad didn't used to get people confused. But sometimes he would resort to calling me "son," as if I wouldn't notice that he had forgotten my name again. 
Gwen settles back in her chair, staring at the TV, lost once more in her own world, or maybe some other world. Thin, I think, that fabric between realities. Maybe minds aren't lost. Maybe they just slip through and find a different place to wander. 
Hoppo offers me a brief, bleak smile. "Why don't we go into the kitchen?" 
"Sure," I say. 
If he'd suggested swimming with sharks I would have agreed just to get out of that hot, stinking living room. (173-4)

John Lescroart. The Suspect. USA: New American Library/Penguin, 2007.
Lawyer Gina Roake is recovering from the death of her soul-mate David, undertaking her first murder defence case. The accused is writer Stuart Gorman, whose surgeon wife Caryn drowned in a hot tub ‒ while he was elsewhere, he insists. Naturally, police are looking at all the suspicious details. The dissection of Stuart's failed marriage reveals much more about Caryn's high-powered activities; they were parents who more or less ignored their bipolar daughter's problems. When Caryn's medical lab technician is found dead a few days later, the police call it suicide. Gung-ho police detective Devin Juhle seems to have tunnel vision, focusing only on Stuart.

Gina's biggest personal challenge is the pre-trial hearing where the legal standard is probable cause; she needs an alternative theory credible enough to convince the judge to release her client. This is vintage Lescroart in his fictional San Francisco world (somehow I missed it in the publishing order). Court room tactics and scenes are a must. No matter which character leads the case/story, token appearances by the other familiar figures are always pleasing to us fans, here e.g. Wes Farrell, Dismas Hardy, investigator Wyatt Hunt. Gina does manage to unravel the truth at some cost of injury to both her and Gorman. Lescroart always weaves a good tale, always satisfying.

And suddenly, as she stared through the prisms of her engagement ring, she felt her shoulders relax as though relieved of a great load. (14)
"Now, Gina," he began with the voice of God, "how may I help you?" (285)
But why, she wondered, was it always these guys with a kind of slippery morality who got drawn to high level politics? (312)

The courthouse:
In front of them, unmarked as well as black-and-white police cars and taxicabs were double-parked in the street all the way up to the front steps of the Hall. Someone had chained a large Doberman to one of the handrails in the middle of the wide and shallow stairs, and his barking competed with the Jamaican in dreads who was exhorting all and sundry to embrace Rasta as their salvation and Haile Selassie as the one true God. A homeless man wrapped in newspaper slept just beyond the hedge that bounded the steps. A full dozen attorney types stood talking with clients or cops in the bright sunshine while regular citizens kept up a stream in and out of the glass doors. "Can you believe? I think I've actually missed the place," Roake said. (39)

Who's out of line?
Hunt tapped idly at the keyboard. "Has somebody we know impeded an investigation?" 
"Briefing a suspect's lawyer on the progress of an official investigation might even fall under aiding and abetting." 
Hunt stopped with the keyboard, turned around. More impatient than angry, he laid it out straight. "Give it a rest, Dev. You know I work for Gina's firm, you knew she was representing Stuart. If you chose not to put that together, that's your problem, my friend, not mine. I never admitted nor denied anything about my involvement or lack thereof with Gina when we talked the other night, and you never asked, so what's the issue?" Juhle started to say something but Hunt held up a finger, stopping him. "And you didn't give me any information I wouldn't have known by the next day, anyway. None of which, I might add, convicts Gorman of anything." (192)

Cynicism or realism?

Perhaps this was what Wes had been warning her about all along. You don't get involved with people you believe to be innocent, because the fundamental function of the law wasn't to dispense justice. She'd said it herself not long ago: It was about conflict resolution.You say he's guilty, I say he's not. Let's decide this case and get on to the next one before lunch, because we've got five more of them this afternoon. Justice was nice. Something everyone hoped for and even usually attained. But it was fundamentally a by-product of a system designed effectively to settle disputes short of clan warfare. If a conflict could be resolved by a conviction, and that was apparently the case here, then a warm body who could be convicted was all the system demanded. And once those wheels were set in motion, they inexorably rolled on. (362-3)