Recent Reading: Mystery

Now that I seem to have beaten my reading slump, I’m going to do my best to get back to blogging, too. Most of what I’ve read lately is mystery and non-fiction. Here’s the mystery list:

Naomi Hirahara, Grave on Grand Avenue (2nd Ellie Rush mystery)

I continue to enjoy this series for its diverse cast of characters, well-drawn LA setting, and realistic portrayal of 23-year-old Ellie’s finding her feet as an adult. I like the way Hirahara balances Ellie’s work life (she’s a rookie bicycle cop with ambitions to be a detective), friendships, romantic travails and family relationships. They all get attention here, so it feels to me like a more recognizable, fully rounded picture of “New Adulthood” than romance seems to offer. There are a handful of mystery plots in this book, including one involving the return of Ellie’s paternal grandfather and one involving a superstar Chinese cellist; they aren’t entirely plausible, but I enjoyed seeing Ellie a bit less hapless at work. I really liked her friendship with Nay, which is both close and competitive. Ellie has to learn that she’s not the only one with ambitions, and to support her friends as they’ve supported her. I hope we’ll get more.

Robert Galbraith, Career of Evil (audiobook read by Robert Glenister)

This is a great book-narrator pairing and I suspect I enjoy the books more on audio than I would in print. Since Galbraith is J. K. Rowling, you can find plenty of proper reviews; these are personal reflections. The author’s gift for storytelling and creating engaging characters are well used here. I blasted through the book. I did feel somewhat grudging, though, about giving my attention to a misogynist serial killer; I enjoyed the unusual “settings” of the previous books (the worlds of celebrity and publishing), where “Galbraith’s” first-hand experience of same was on display. And I am so, so tired of woman-hating and -abusing killers. Especially baroquely evil ones. I don’t need to spend any more time in their heads. I thought killer POV was overdone here–I got that he (his identity remains a mystery until the very end) despised women after the first few times we heard him think of the woman he lives with as “It.”

That said, I do think this novel offers a feminist take on such killers, especially through the voice of Robin, who expresses her fury at the way men see an emotional woman as vulnerable and weak, and swoop in to take advantage. The overlapping suspects in the serial murders, Strike and Robin’s other cases, and issues from Strike and Robin’s personal lives all revolve around misogynistic violence and male dominance and control of women, and I thought the novel effectively connects the more “banal” examples of control, like fiancé Matthew’s attempts to get Robin to give up working for Strike (and his jealousy) to the baroque serial-killer kind, they’re a spectrum, and nothing on that spectrum is truly benign. At the same time, Career of Evil didn’t really escape the trap of making these awful, violent men fascinating, in many ways the center of the story (this is how I felt about the “feminist” take on the serial killer plot in The Fallwhich I stopped watching). I am curious about whether this trap is escapable, at least within the conventions of the mystery/thriller genre.

I also thought that Strike’s occasional desire to control and protect Robin wasn’t interrogated as fully as Matthew’s, another familiar trap (oh well, when the hero tells her not to do X, he turns out to be right). Robin does push back, and she does save herself, but I’m still waiting for her to be a full-on hero in her own right. Or maybe I’m stuck in the trap of defining “hero” in a particular way.

The Strike-Robin-Matthew triangle continues to be the weakest part of the series. Despite sporadic attempts, Matthew just isn’t made interesting of likeable enough to be a plausible rival. I find Robin’s choices hard to fathom (I get how the backstory here is supposed to help, but I didn’t buy it). I’d rather he be stronger and, frankly, I’d rather Strike just be a mentor. Unresolved Sexual Tension isn’t always that interesting.

I expressed my qualms and complaints here, mostly, but I enjoyed this book a lot and am definitely in for more. It’s because there’s praise everywhere, and I mostly agree with it, that I focused on the negative. I’m curious about what others who are reading the series think about these aspects.

Catherine Lloyd, Death Comes to London (#2 in the Kurland St. Mary series)

What I remember liking about in this Regency-set series, Death Comes to the Village (discussed at the bottom of the post linked above), was the prickly, grudgingly respectful friendship that developed between vicar’s daughter Lucy Harrington and wounded Major Robert Harrington, and the village world Lloyd developed. Neither of those was enough on display here, and I nearly abandoned the book 1/3 in. As the title suggests, this story moves to London, and the first third, especially, felt padded out with a cardboardy Almackistan husband hunt blah blah I’ve read a million times before. Once the mystery got underway, it was better, but none of the characters felt as well-developed as in the last book.

Lacking that interest in the people, I noticed the historical implausibilities more. The kind of research on display here annoys me. On the one hand, Lloyd knew that a specific book on poisons would be available to her characters, on the other, their social world was thin and unpersuasive (for example, a London house with a stillroom and dairy–now converted to a laboratory–in the garden? I doubt it; set your story in the country if you want that. And surely the Prince Regent is not your Monarch, and is not addressed as Your Majesty). I think what I miss most in books like this is a sense of the decorum that governed people’s social interactions, especially with those they didn’t know well. And the sentence-level writing was sometimes awkward and sloppy.

Finally, I noticed something here that seems to be cropping up more lately: a passage that read like a didactic response to conversations about feminism and genre fiction. First there’s dialogue showing that a male character thinks his scientific investigations are superior to his grandmother’s brewing of herbal remedies. Then Lucy reflects at length on how men are too quick to dismiss women’s knowledge. As if the author didn’t trust me to draw my own conclusions about the scene.

Obviously I don’t know what the author or publisher were thinking as they wrote and edited Death Comes to London, but it felt to me, reading it, like a book produced by people thinking “Oh well, this is the kind of thing voracious cozy mystery readers will blast through in a couple of hours; no need to craft something that will repay closer attention.” If there’s another book in the series and my library gets it, I might be lured in. (At least if it’s back in Kurland St. Mary). But I think I can find better uses for a couple of hours. This book isn’t terrible, but it’s slapdash.

 

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10 Responses to Recent Reading: Mystery

  1. rosario001 says:

    I’m listening to the Robert Galbraith series as well (and I agree, the narrator is great), but I’m saving the latest one for my long flight to Uruguay next month. Have you listened to the interview Rowling did with NPR a few days ago? She touches on many of the issues you mention above. It’s at: http://www.npr.org/sections/monkeysee/2015/11/02/453152339/writing-career-of-evil-gave-robert-galbraith-aka-j-k-rowling-nightmares

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I haven’t, but someone mentioned it to me on Twitter so I am downloading it! That aspect of the book was really intriguing and, though I had some reservations, I thought she examined this kind of violence in a much more interesting way than is typical. Especially in connecting it to more seemingly benign kinds of sexism. I look forward to hearing her discuss it!

  2. KeiraSoleore says:

    The male superior to female junior love interest is such a trope in mystery to be almost de rigueur. Even PD James fell prey to that though it was one-sided, which I liked. I read the first two Galbraiths and I was tired of the Matthew triangle. I totally could not understand what in the world Robin saw in him. But in order for the series to continue that three-way sexual tension cannot be resolved so it continues on unchanged.

    As you know, my level of tolerance of violence is pretty low. So while I enjoy the detecting and solving of puzzles, the depths of the violence to which some stories descend to (especially killer’s POVs) are anathema to me. And it’s not that I like cozies. So while I enjoy the genre, I cannot find many books that fit my narrow requirements.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think the tension CAN be resolved, because a good mystery series thrives on the plots, and though I appreciate character growth, it’s secondary. (Some mystery series have zero, some have tons). I’ve read really good series where the partners end up in a romantic relationship and good ones where they move on (sometimes AFTER the relationship). And that might be part of why this uninteresting “triangle” annoys me. Erin Satie, who pointed me to the NPR interview Rosario mentions, noted that Rowling says plenty of great women DO stay with men where we wonder “why on earth?” (and the other way round, too). And I know people like that. So there’s that.

      I think–and I think this goes for Harry Potter too–that Rowling’s gift is as a storyteller, i.e. voice, characterization, plotting. The elements she puts together are not usually that original. I felt that about this book: the perspective on events, and the way they affect the characters/reveal things about the characters, and the twisty plot, kept me reading. The basic plot elements I’m really tired of and enjoy less than I used to. Voice is what’s keeping me reading these. I’m having a harder and harder time with gore, but a lot of cozy mysteries feel too fluffy/superficial. Like you, I am looking for that sweet spot which offers some depth of character/theme/setting, interesting plots, but not too much darkness/violence. It can be tough.

  3. Sunita says:

    I will definitely read the new Galbraith, or probably listen to it because I love Glenister’s narration, but I wish it wasn’t a serial killer plot. They are to mysteries nowadays what alphaholes are to romance: totally unappealing (to me) but all too ubiquitous. I’m OK with violence and the killer’s POV, but it’s just overused at this point.

  4. lawless says:

    I enjoyed the first Ellie Rush book, so I’m game for trying the second.

    As for Galbraith, the more I read about his (her?) books, the more appealing they sound. My love for psychological thrillers means don’t object to killer POV, but many of the killer POVs that are most interesting to read are probably the most unrealistic. (Hannibal Lecter, I’m thinking of you, although I thought Thomas Harris did a good — and plausible — job of humanizing the eponymous Red Dragon (not Lecter) in the first book to feature Lecter. Ruth Rendell has written serial killer POVs that are probably the true to life in their mundanity, triviality, narcissism, and delusion, but they are not nearly as fun to read.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Galbraith’s is my only mystery series right now where I buy *and read* as soon as a new book comes out. So despite some quibbles I definitely recommend it, especially given what you say about your tastes.

  5. Janine Ballard says:

    I really enjoyed this post — so glad you’re reading and posting again!

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