04 May 2017

Library Limelights 131

David Baldacci. The Last Mile. USA: Hachette Book Group, Inc./Grand Central Publishing, 2016.
Another very successful, popular author whose thrillers I've enjoyed in the past ― especially the Will Robie series. This one had a strangely flat and mechanical effect among the characters, possibly because the last few books I read were so vivid. Amos Decker is on an FBI team that agrees to take a second look at Melvin Mars' wrongful conviction for killing his parents. Mars was just released from a Texas prison, saved from execution, thanks to the confession of another man. Baldacci is anything but subtle in emphasizing prison brutality. Turns out Mars hardly knew a thing about his secretive parents whose hidden past is slowly, painfully brought to light. Most of the characters, aside from Mars, appear emotionless so it's hard to connect with them. And the real, unknown killer is alive and stalking them.

Decker is not a warm or sympathetic character; a head injury in his own traumatic past has given him hyperthymesia (perfect memory recall) but it also limits his social skills. It does indeed qualify him well for detective work. The bizarrely twisted tale ultimately revolves around an old conspiracy of former high school friends. But each time a significant new lead occurs to Decker or the team, any astute reader will be one step ahead. Three quarters of the way through, a one-time odd shift in narrative doesn't sit well. I have to say, all in all, the credibility in the byzantine plot as well as in its running investigation is somewhat strained ... not Baldacci at his best.

One-liners:
Texas killed you dead whether you took it brave or not. (6)
He could either live in the past or he could venture out and see if he was capable of having a future. (55)
"The only toilet I had growing up was the one at school." (396)

The team brainstorms:
"So if he came into town on an empty tank and wallet and left it with an empty tank and wallet, how'd he get all the way to Abilene without running out of gas? And on top of that he had to drive all the way out to the Marses' house to kill them. That's nearly two gallons right there. So tell me, how is that all possible?" 
Davenport and Jamison exchanged a quick glance.Bogart cleared his throat and said, "It's not. Which means he was either lying or mistaken." 
Decker said, "I don't buy it that he was mistaken. He was too specific on the details. It was just a small point that was overlooked when the cover story was put together." 
"Whoa," said Milligan. "Where do you get a cover story?" 
"Someone had to put it together." 
"That is a huge and, in my mind, unjustified leap of logic." 
"Well, I guess that's just the difference between my mind and yours." 
Milligan screwed up his face at this comment and picked up his coffee. (126-7)

Digging for memories:
"But you might know more than you think," said Bogart. 
She looked up and suddenly registered on Mars. "When I said 'colored' just now, I didn't mean any disrespect. Just the term we used back then. Should've said African American, or black. I'm sorry, young man." 
"That's okay," said Mars. 
"It was just different back then," mumbled Ryan. "Just different." 
"But maybe you can answer some of our questions," prompted Decker. 
"I'm old. I don't remember much. It was a long time ago. I...I just want to be left alone." Ryan looked back down at her Bible, her finger moving along the words, her mouth opening as she silently read them. (313-4)


Arnaldur Indridason. Black Skies. 2009. UK: Harvill Secker, 2012.
Sigurdur Óli, detective in Reykjavik, does a favour for his friend Patrekur that spirals out of his control into a murder. Óli's colleague Finnur is suspicious about the involvement and wants him off the case. They know who did the killing but can't prove it. Blackmail seems to have no connection to banking fraud, but the two policemen plod dutifully through the slightest of leads. Repeated interviews with various witnesses and suspects become ... boring. Sorry, but this novel (and Óli) lack the warmth of the cop Erlendur featured in Indridason's earlier Voices ― with even less excitement, I might add. Manipulation of money markets, offshore accounts, greedy young Type-As ... all coming across in stilted dialogue ... and it's not the translation doing it.

The pace here is glacial, little in the way of mystery to challenge the brain. Once again, parental neglect/abuse is a sub-current. Óli's encounters with the pathetic Andrés seem like gratuitous filler, drawing us in with a bizarre teaser that evaporates like fog. Óli himself does not move me: he is self-satisfied and morally rigid, although when his girlfriend dumps him, he does begin to question whether he is really as inflexible as his snobbish mother. His growing concern about Andrés seems superficial. Ultimately only one simple mystery is solved near the limp ending. Disappointing.

One-liners:
"It's all about having fun with strangers," Hermann chimed in, apparently revived by the beer. (15)
The bastard may have been old and bent but he still had the power to fill him with fear, with the terror that came crawling out of its hiding place to claw at his heart. (39)
"All these guys own off-roaders: the smaller their dicks, the bigger their cars." (131)

Date night:
"You're not big on sympathy, are you?" Bergthóra said. 
"What do you mean?" Sigurdur Óli demanded. 
They were interrupted by the friendly middle-aged waiter who brought over the bottle of red wine, and after showing Sigurdur Óli the label, poured some wine into his glass. Sigurdur Óli watched him. 
"You've already uncorked the bottle?" 
The waiter did not understand the question. 
"You're supposed to do it in front of me," Sigurdur Óli said. "How do I know how long ago this bottle was opened or what you've been doing with it behind the scenes?" 
The waiter looked at him in surprise. "I've only just opened it," he mumbled apologetically.
"Well, you're supposed to uncork it here at the table, not in some back room." 
"I'll fetch another bottle." The waiter hurried away. 
"He's doing his best," Bergthóra objected. 
"He's an amateur," Sigurdur Óli said dismissively. "We pay a lot to eat here and they're supposed to know what they're doing." (51)

A fly in his ointment:
"Patrekur admitted to having gone to see you, so it's on record – that you knew about the case but failed to report it. I'll be writing a report later and intend to send it to Internal Affairs. You can expect to hear from them." 
"Why are you doing this, Finnur?" asked Sigurdur Óli. 
"I'm surprised you have the nerve to continue with this case," Finnur replied. "You're far too closely involved, and if you don't see sense, I'll have to deal with the situation myself. I'm in charge of this inquiry; it's not your little game." 
"Are you sure you can afford to threaten me?" said Sigurdur Óli. 
"Your position is not looking good, Siggi. You're compromising this inquiry by turning it into a private vendetta. I call the shots and you should do as I say." (125)

The homeless and unfortunates:
His usual attitude was that these people were responsible for their own plight. He did his job and once he left the office for the day it was over – he had done his duty and there was no need to think about work again until he returned to the station. Some of the other officers who worked on difficult cases let it get to them, especially new recruits and old-timers, but he regarded emotional involvement as an obstacle to performing one's role. He had often been criticised for his cynicism and detachment but this meant nothing to him. (189-90)

Keija Parssinen. The Ruins of Us. USA: Harper Perennial/HarperCollins, 2012.
It's fiction, but the life is real. Rosalie March was born in Saudi Arabia where daddy, as an oil man, ensconced his family in an ex-pat compound; she lived her first thirteen years there, fully absorbing her environment. After daddy returned the family to his native Texas, the beautiful Rosalie became a fierce, independent woman, often wistfully recalling her childhood. Meeting wealthy university student Abdullah Baylani was karma. Despite both families' opposition, they married and settled happily in a Persian Gulf town of the Kingdom, wildly in love. Twenty-seven years and two kids later, Rosalie is an accepted, model Arab wife, "surrendering to culture and religion"; her natural temperament no longer evident. Ironically, Abdullah misses what first attracted him; he takes a young second wife!

Rosalie's devastation at this archaic turn, in a rapidly modernizing but restrictive society, somersaults from rage to self-pity and back. And thus the whole family is badly affected, especially sixteen-year-old son Faisal who struggles with his half-American heritage. The story alternately reflects their feelings. Family friend Dan is also examining his own lonely life. The intimidating influence of al-Saud (the royal family) and the mutwa ready to pounce on any infraction cause the wealthy to make calculated but temporary getaways from the Kingdom. The essence of life and business are vividly portrayed in a family facing divisive crisis. Parssinen draws from experience, inviting us on an immersive cultural journey.

One-liners:
He'd forgotten the energy it took to be in love. (98)
The al-Saud served themselves first, and then their people, and there was no room for criticism, no matter how hushed or private it seemed. (192)
Their pity and sympathy for Rosalie was like a flower the women of the family had tended. (305)

Two-liner:
In school, the Koran had felt different to him, a heavy book read by paper-skinned, onion-hearted old men. But in Ibrahim's hands it came alive, the words strung together in musical verses that made Faisal's heart expand and contract with a force that felt like love. (86)

The admission:
He'd been married to another woman for two years. Her next question no longer mattered. She smoothed down her skirt and walked toward the door. That question was why, but after two years, it was too late to ask why. Instead, she grabbed a jade bookend from the shelf, turned and heaved it toward him. He moved easily out of the way, which only further infuriated her. 
"Pig!" she shouted. Then, more quietly, "You've ruined us." 
Upstairs in her bathroom, she locked the door and then lay down on the thick, cream-colored rug that Abdullah insisted they use because it reminded him of his mother. Rosalie turned her cheek to one side and waited till she no longer felt like vomiting. This took two days. (12)

Fallout:
Madness had lately afflicted his family. Rosalie was a corpse one minute and a banshee the next. Faisal was an enigma, with his furtive movements, his shadowy friends, his bizarre declamations. He created secrets that he guarded with militancy. Even Mariam was in trouble. They had received so many letters at home regarding her behavior at school that Abdullah couldn't keep track of her misdeeds―removing her veil on the playground, skipping class to read smuggled books in the library, passing out EQUAL RIGHTS FOR WOMEN NOW bumper stickers to her classmates. His once-sweet daughter was becoming a revolutionary. (89)

Abdullah's paradox:

He watched his daughter talking. People never said she looked like Rosalie, since their coloring was so different. But he saw it, in her broad mouth and deep-set eyes. Could he have done something to make things different? How could he even have begun to explain to Rosalie that, even though she'd become exactly what his country demanded her to be, it wasn't what he wanted her to become, and now he no longer loved her as he once had? Or maybe it had nothing to do with Saudi Arabia or with the money. Maybe it was just that people changed over time and love vanished without warning, without mercy. (99-100)

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