18 June 2017

Library Limelights 135

Val McDermid. The Grave Tattoo. Canada: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., 2006.
A body found in a bog starts a chain of deadly circumstances; it's an old body but not that old. Jane the literature scholar and various others interested in poet William Wordsworth hope the body proves to be that of Fletcher Christian who led the Bounty mutiny. Rumour has long been that Christian met Wordsworth upon his secret return to England. Did Wordsworth create an epic but undiscovered poem about it? Jane's associates Anthony and Dan are supportive in a search for missing papers but other interests have a dark side, including her brother Matthew and her ex-boyfriend Jake. Jane and Dan work out a two-hundred year family tree for tracing living people, but their interviews have grave consequences. The little cluster of Lake District (England) villages have seldom seen so much activity as one funeral follows another.

Dr Wilde, the forensic anthropologist studying the body, is making a documentary and Rigston, the local detective, wants to arrest Jane as the cause behind all the suspicious events. Then there's Tenille, the sharp kid in the London council estates whom Jane befriended. Tenille's unacknowledged father is John "Hammer" Hampton, scariest man in the London underworld. When she gets in trouble, she heads for Jane, not knowing the Lake District has become a busy hot spot. Interspersed are portions of Wordsworth's (fictional) notes recounting Christian's maritime saga. McDermid is a crafty old hand at puzzles and never disappoints.

Like the poor, the past is always with us. (1)
"Mixing with the likes of the Hammer isn't right for a woman like you." (305)
He'd be damned if she ever got a sniff of William Wordsworth's missing masterpiece. (326)

"Use your charm, Jake. There's not much point in having it otherwise, is there?" (83)

Transporting bog man:
We make a pretty strange cortege, she thought to herself as she eased the bulk of her Land Rover out of its car park space and into the wake of the hearse. Talk about the odd couple. A body with no one to mourn it and a forensic anthropologist who wants to steal all its secrets. A limo and a Landie. Hell, I could just have loaded the body in the back and not bothered the guys from Gibson's. (71)

Scumbag manuscripts dealer:
The dial-up connection via the phone point was tediously slow compared to wireless access, but he wanted privacy for his piracy. He booted up Jane's email program and was please to see that, as he'd suspected, she'd left her password stored on the dial-up screen. He hesitated for a moment. What he was planning was about as shabby as it got. And Jane didn't like to think of himself as shabby. But he had his future to consider. Frankly, a little shabbiness was neither here nor there if that was all that stood between him and the literary find of the century. (195)

Parental freakout at telly news:
"So why are you acting like you've just seen a ghost?" Matthew asked, for once not unkindly. "What are you not telling us, Jane?"
She visibly pulled herself together. "I know Tenille, that's all."
"That black girl in the photo? You know her?" Her father sounded bewildered, as if an alien world had reached out and touched his own. "How do you know someone like that?"
"You mean because she's black or because she's a teenager?" Jane asked, showing a rare irritation with her father.
"Because she's mixed up with a murder, your father means," Judy the peacemaker said. "And it's a good question. How do you know a lass who's wanted by the police in connection with a murder?" (205)

Sharyn McCrumb. Prayers the Devil Answers. USA: Center Point Large Print, 2016.
I had a vague memory of reading this author some time ago, so why not try her latest. My mistake. The book is not my cup of tea no mystery here, no detecting, no danger, suspense, excitement ― blame it on misleading cover blurb? There is a crime that we know about from the get-go, and the story concentrates on how the local sheriff handles the arrest and the execution. It's the dirty-thirties in the hardscrabble Appalachians; the sheriff is Ellendor Robbins, appointed temporarily after her husband Albert's death. A woman sheriff in the back of beyond is a tale McCrumb built on the meagre basics of a true story.

Apparently I have a mental block against reading about poverty and hardship in semi-illiterate surroundings, but anyone else will appreciate McCrumb's gentle, descriptive immersion into a world of eighty years ago; it's full of great contemporary atmosphere whether you like it or not. One thing, she often drops back stories into the midst of dialogue that have you losing the thread of the conversation. Maybe it's your cup of tea?

He was a wiry banty rooster of a man with slicked-back hair and a hand-rolled cigarette hanging off his lip every time I saw him. (57)
Bravery was only a virtue if you were doing something that needed doing, which, in their view, persecuting local bootleggers was not. (92)
He wasn't afraid of steel-eyed old ladies; it's just that they always made him feel ten years old again, with lessons forgotten and a frog in his pocket. (143)

But by the end, I knew that if, by the grace of God, Albert did return to life long enough to speak even a few words, I would ask him about everything. By then I'd had many waking hours to sit by the bedside in silence and dwell on the big questions, knowing that the answers to questions would have to last me the rest of my life. I needed to ask him about money, about the boys, about a future without him, whether he wanted me to stay here or go back up the mountain. So many questions, but they all boiled down to a single one: What must I do? (40)

The in-laws:
"But we do have a little money put by from his pay, and I reckon I could use some of it to buy him a place in the burying ground."
Henry shut his eyes and heaved a weary sigh. "Well, I can't think of a greater waste of money. Leave it to a woman to make a hash of practical matters once she is on her own. It's a good thing we came to tell you what to do before it was too late."
Elva spoke up, perhaps to prove that she could be practical despite being female. "Bury him in town, Ellendor? But where is the sense in that?"
Not that it's any of your business, I thought. "The sense is this, Elva: when he died, Albert was the county sheriff. He made friends heremen from the railroad shop, the church, the neighbours―enough well-wishers to get him elected to office, in fact. People here respected him. He was the sheriff, and he was proud of that. Here he was somebody." (197)

Claire Cameron. The Last Neanderthal. Canada: Doubleday Canada, 2017.
Another not-a-mystery unless you count great issues such as evolution among yours. I read it not because Cameron's mother is a pretty good friend of mine, but because the author has proven to be a stellar Canadian writer (remember Bear?). Neanderthal just might blow you away. Back in the '80s, I loved Jean Auel's prehistoric series beginning with Clan of the Cave Bear. Ergo, how would Cameron treat that period of which we have so few traces? With immense aplomb and vigour, as it turns out. The life of "Girl" is contrasted with that of Dr. Rose Gale, the archaeologist who discovers new skeletons in France. The result presents a startling and compassionate portrait of two women.

Rose believes that Neanderthals had far greater cognitive skills than scientists give credit for. In her excavation, a human skeleton is found embracing a female Neanderthal. Maybe they will provide answers to the ascendancy of humans. Museum politics intrude while pregnant Rose struggles to retain control of her dig site. For her part, Girl is finely tuned to nature around her, consciously trying to adapt to loss and change by distinguishing what remains the same in her world. There are some harrowing scenes on each side; suspense becomes a finely handled element. Cameron appears to have as much affinity with the natural world of animals as Neanderthal Girl does, which is part of her whole point. Cameron makes us feel this connection in her incredibly moving novel:
When you look into her eyes, you will feel an immediate connection. All the differences drop away. You each know with certainty that you can feel the mind of the other. You share a single thought: I am not alone. (5)

[Girl] Life was a moving set of decisions. (18)
[Rose] I knew a fear so deep it opened its gaping mouth and swallowed me up. (227)

There were only two kinds of meat: The meat that gets to eat. And the meat that gets eaten. (38)

Sponsors and funding:
One more spot, presumably for me, was set across from them; it looked like I would be facing a firing line. They were talking among themselves, and they stood when they saw me enter. The only person I recognized was Tim Spalding, the trustee I'd spoken with on the phone.
"Dr. Gale, wonderful to see you again. Thank you for coming."
"Nice to see you again, Mr. Spalding," I said.
"Tim, please."
His palm was dry and his grip firm. I pulled my hand back with a glance down. I still had dirt under the edges of my nails. I had given them a scrub earlier, but I hadn't worried about it too much. Every archaeologist in the field suffers the same. But then, under the grandly arched ceiling of the museum conference room, all that digging and dirt felt far away. (49-50)

The mother bear also sniffed curiously. She held up her nose and lingered in a way that reminded Girl of Big Mother. Had this bear eaten her mother's meat? Was the old woman inside? It was rare for the bears to pass by the land of the family on their way to the fish run, but they might have. Rather than feeling disturbed at the thought of the family being meat, Girl hung on to the idea. ...
The idea of the bear bringing part of Big Mother to the meeting place in her belly felt efficient, since Girl couldn't have carried the body. She found herself trying to feel Big Mother in this bear. The bear dipped her head and seemed to eye Girl's belly. (161)

Raison d'être:
He ate the meatball on his fork and stabbed another one. "You know why we were put on this planet?" He waved the meatball at me. "All this time, the answer was here?"
"I don't wonder anymore."
"I was going to say the same. That I suddenly do see a larger point to all this." He smiled broadly.
"I found her." I grinned back.
The baby."
"The Neanderthal."
"I have this feeling, Simon. Once I've excavated her completely, she's going to show that my theories are exactly right." (168)

Emotional power:
Feeling like she had received a kick to her gut, Girl dropped to her knees, and the air rushed out of her body in one gasp. Here was one change too many. The careful equation of Girl's life tilted. Her balance was lost. Too few things kept her feet rooted to the ground, as a tree that becomes vulnerable when the one next to it falls after a strong gust of wind. Her senses shut down. She could no longer see. She lost track of the land around her. Noise filled her head and she clutched her ears. They were her screams, although she barely recognized the sound. (206)

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