Patrick DeWitt. Undermajordomo Minor. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2015.
How bizarre and delightful is this? I loved the author's Sisters Brothers and this new book of sly black humour only confirmed that this guy's talent mesmerizes me. Young Lucien Minor, known from page 1 as Lucy, drifts from his gentle, boring life to an odd world when he takes a service job at Castle Von Aux. Lucy the näif meets new people, most of them friendly ― Memel the thief, Adolphus "the exceptionally handsome man," Olderglough the loyal majordomo, Klara the beauty, Agnes the cook, and so on. In the village background, soldiers are fighting endless battles of long-forgotten motivation, for the most part ignored by the general populace and the castle residents.
It's rather idyllic and fairytale-like as Lucy develops character and finds resources within himself. His boss is agreeable, his duties pleasant, he falls in love. Yet mystery surrounds the madness of the Baron and the fate of Lucy's predecessor. Uneventful days take a sharp turn when the Baroness returns to the castle. The household vibrates with planning for visitors ― the Duke, Duchess, Count, and Countess. But the unsavoury guests initiate a debauche inadvertently witnessed by a shocked Lucy. What are we to make of DeWitt's parallel world? Is the honest thief more honourable than the degenerate aristocrat? What level do we engage on?
One-liners: Lucy's father, a man without God, came home from working the fields to find the priest in his home; he led the man out by the arm, this accomplished in a business-like fashion, the way one shepherds a cat from a room. (5)
"You always bring God into arguments you're losing, for the liar is lonely, and welcomes all manner of company." (104)
Emulating a man of the world:
He adopted the carriage of one sitting in fathomless reflection, though there was in fact no motion in his mind whatsoever. Holding the pipe head in the basin of his palm, he rotated the mouthpiece outward so that it rested between his middle and ring fingers. Now he pointed with it, here and there, for this was what the pipe-smoking men in the tavern did when giving directions or recalling a location-specific incident. A large part of the pipe's appeal to Lucy was the way it became an extension of the body of the user, a functional appendage of his person. Lucy was looking forward to pointing with his pipe in a social setting; all he needed was an audience for whom to point, as well as something to point at. He took another draw, but being a fledgling he became dizzy and tingly; tapping the pipe against the heel of his hand, the furry clump clomped to the ground like a charred field mouse, and he watched the blurred tendrils of smoke bleeding out through the shredded tobacco. (5)
Important servants' dialogue:
" ... The Baron's is a one-sided correspondence."
Lucy pondered the definition of the word. "I was unaware there was such a thing," he admitted.
Mr. Olderglough's face puckered, as one stung by a discourtesy.
"Is this a comical observation?" he asked.
"It was not meant to be, sir, no."
"I certainly hope not. Because I don't subscribe to amusements, Lucy. Laughter is the basest sound a body can make, in my opinion. Do you often laugh, can I ask?"
Very rarely, sir. Extremely rarely, in fact."
"Good," Mr. Olderglough said. (70-71)
The Countess paused. "Well, I don't want to hear another word about it." And with this, she emerged: a corpulent, panting woman with frizzed black hair, a crimson neck, and a fierce displeasure in her eye which Lucy took to be travel fatigue but which he would soon discover was simply her root mood. When he held out his hand to help her from the train, she cracked him across his knuckles with her folding fan, a stinging blow that took his breath away. Pushing past him, she stepped up the path and towards the castle, murmuring vague threats or regrets to herself. Once she was clear of earshot, the Count addressed Lucy breathily, and through a shroud of bluish smoke. (231)
Steve Martini. Shadow of Power. New York: Harper (paperback), 2008.
Martini crafts superb courtroom trials, this being no exception. His protagonist, Paul Madriani, is a veteran defence lawyer, once again undertaking what looks like a hopeless case. A popular and controversial author is found bludgeoned to death and the only scapegoat is Madriani's young social misfit of a client. The author's latest book had exposed the wording of slavery in the American constitution, creating escalating mini-riots wherever he went; he promised next to publish a hitherto unknown, inflammatory letter penned by Thomas Jefferson. That document, possibly pointing to a different killer, can't be located nor introduced into trial evidence.
Martini as Madriani expands now and then on the dirty politics of economic realities ― the historical and judicial foundation of a nation; you may not agree but it's compelling reading. At the heart of the case a Supreme Court judge seems to be personally involved. So many nuances of criminal law as prosecution, defence, and trial judge try to control the course of disclosures! Meanwhile, the media reports leaked information, fanning the flames; clamourous demonstrations outside the courtroom are turning ugly. How timely? It's all during national election year. Ultimately you may guess the denouement, but overall it's a gourmet meal for hungry armchair lawyers.
One- and two-liners:
▪ But for certain aspects of terminal cancer, there is nothing I can think of in life that will destroy a person faster than the perils of dealing with the American judicial system. (32)
▪ It is one of those imponderables, the snippets of life that engrave themselves on the mind of a small child. (54)
▪ Anyone who thinks judges aren't political should buy a bridge or two. (86)
▪ Short of revolution, something Jefferson urged take place at least every twenty years, the average citizen is left to pound sand by casting a largely empty vote to replace the devil-in-office with the devil-in-waiting and hope that the caustic nature of power to corrupt can somehow be neutralized. (127)
▪ She looks at him, one of those drop-dead expressions that only a woman can give you. (367)
▪ By ten o'clock, before the midmorning break, you can hear the drumbeat, the resonant pounding like that of Zulu warriors striking spears on their shields on the street outside. (391-2)
▪ A little past noon, and the rhythmic pounding of demonstrators, the ceaseless chants and yelling, against the pitched wail of electronic sirens outside, has the constancy and power of rolling surf. (395)
▪ When a jury comes in, it is always the same, the rush of emotions, the anxiety. My stomach produces enough acid to etch the concrete on my driveway. (420)
▪ The price of holding on to the original thirteen colonies was slavery. It was a price that history records they [founders] were willing for others to pay. (449)
Robert Wilson. Capital Punishment. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2013.
Does anyone create more complicated mysteries than Wilson?! This one is his first Charles Boxer novel, preceding You Will Never Find Me (reviewed here), and centres again around Boxer's specialty as a kidnap consultant. The adult daughter of a South Asian billionaire is kidnapped in London and Boxer is hired to negotiate her freedom. However, even as one tortuous relationship after another is uncovered among gangs and smugglers and corporate hypocrites and terrorists, no-one is making the expected contact to negotiate. MI5 and MI6 are on full alert. In the light of his deep attraction to the victim's mother, Boxer fears his "dirty secret" ― a proclivity for killing hostage-takers ― may be revealed, but worse, could possibly come to dominate his sensibilities.
The clock ticks down as the kidnapped Alyshia is subjected to a demeaning psychological cat-and-mouse game. Her father Frank D'Cruz is an enigma unto himself, reluctant to provide insider knowledge that might help identify the criminals. Boxer and ex-wife, Metro cop Mercy Danquah, try not to be distracted by their own daughter's abominable behaviour. The ever-revolving plot sees kidnappers switching places. This is a book, an author, for fans of any crime genre. I had to order the third in the series as fast as my fingers would travel into the TPL system.
D'Cruz blinked at the possibility of his enormous capacity to pay becoming an insignificant factor. (76)
"Tea?" said Mehta, in a perfect imitation of a waitress in a south London greasy spoon. (131)
Boxer gets a pass from Isabel:
It was always a tense moment to be introduced to the mother of a kidnapped child. If she didn't like the look of you, no matter what the husband might say, you'd lose the job. Boxer elicited extreme feelings. He either inspired total confidence or profound dislike. He'd noticed that the wives of very rich men generally fell into the second category. They did not like it that he was self-contained, unimpressed by wealth, not overawed by status or celebrity, and didn't have a molecule of subservience in his nature. He'd been fired on doorsteps in Miami, São Paulo, Nassau, Manila and Johannesburg. (66)
The teenager from hell:
Esme put a coffee down in front of Mercy's clenched hands. Mercy leaned over and rested her forehead on her fists as her body was wracked with shuddering sobs. She leaned back, tears streaming down her face.
"Sorry," she said. "I'm losing it."
Esme was transfixed, had never seen Mercy in such a state.Mercy got up suddenly, wiped her face and walked across the living room into Amy's bedroom. The girl was sitting on her duvet in her pyjamas with an MP3 player plugged in. She glanced up, yanked the buds out of her ears and a look of such scowling meanness crossed her face that Mercy reared back.
"What do you want?" she said.
And Mercy didn't know. She didn't know what she wanted. Except for it to be all right. But not how to make it so.
"I just ..." she started.
"I just wanted to tell you how much I love you."
"Now you're all at it," said Amy, mocking. (214)
One set of kidnappers:
"I'm just saying, it'll take me an hour. We need to build that into our timings."
"All right, sorry. I'm just a bit stressed, with London on red alert for our arses."
"Take a hit," said Skin, handing him the last dark inch of spliff. "What's the worst that can happen?"
Dan took a huge toke, held it in until he squeaked and his eyes filled and streamed. The drug slipped into his blood and suddenly he didn't feel hounded anymore.
"The worst that can happen," said Dan cheerfully, "is that we die horribly long, tortuous deaths in the hands of one London gang or another."
"I'll shoot you before it comes to that," said Skin. "Promise."
"That's a very fine thing for you to say, Skin," said Dan. "You're a true friend."
"Don't mention it," said Skin. (288)