Tuesday, July 1, 2008

A Beautiful Blue Death by Charles Finch

There have been many (too many) redos, continuations, re-imaginings, and spin-offs of Sherlock Holmes. Being a big fan, I've read quite a few of them. Most are not worth reading (though my recent favorite is Michael Chabon's The Final Solution). Charles Finch has come up with a wonderful alternative, a way for readers to be in the world of Sherlock Holmes without it being subject to the expectations and scrutiny that would come with his using that character.
A Beautiful Blue Death introduces readers to Charles Lenox, an amateur detective in Victorian London. He seems almost to be Holmes' rich, aristocratic brother; Lenox's friend, and assistant, is a doctor who could be a school friend of Watson's; and, of course, the art of careful observation and deduction is the key to Lenox's success. I won't give away the mystery (it involves a rare, blue poison), but it was very satisfying. There's even a bit of possible romance that I always wished for in the Holmes stories.
I plan to read the next two in this series coming this summer - The September Society (in paperback) and The Fleet Street Murders (in hardcover). I'm hoping they'll be equally well-done fun.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris

At its base, Finding Nouf is a murder mystery. A young girl has run away from home and her wealthy family calls in a friend to help look for her. The family friend becomes intrigued by the girl and begins to track down the details of her life. If that was all there was to this novel, I would still recommend it. I liked the twisting (but not falsely complicated) nature of the story. I liked the main characters, their flaws, their interesting lives.
But, there's more to the story - it is set in a coastal city in contemporary Saudi Arabia. Nouf lead the life of a very sheltered, rich Muslim girl. She runs away from home shortly before her wedding to a man who has never seen her face. Nayir, the family friend, is a devout Muslim who faints at the sight of too much female flesh exposed. The forensic investigation is carried out by a woman with a PhD  who has shamed her family by wanting to work.
All the little details add a fascinating other level to Finding Nouf. One of the strengths of this book is that they give insight into what life would be like for the characters, but never feel like they've been brought up to say, "look how strange they are, look how different they are from us." Instead, I found myself understanding a little better why a woman might choose to wear a headscarf.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Echoes from the Dead by Johan Theorin

I probably don’t need to mention that Scandinavian authors are popular right now - you might have heard of a certain Girl and her Tattoo. My family is a little obsessed with them - Steig Larsson, Jo Nesbo, Per Petterson (not mysteries, but very good), Henning Mankell, and others. So when both my dad and my brother told me that Theorin is their new favorite Swedish author, I had to give him a try.
Echoes from the Dead is set on a chilly, windswept island off the coast of Sweden. The story follows Julia Davidsson and her father Gerlof as they delve into the twenty-year-old disappearance of Julia’s young son, Jens. It is a quieter book than some mysteries. Julia’s long-held grief over her lost son is very well portrayed. Gerlof is a former ship’s captain in his eighties. The search for new information about Jens is partly a way to escape the care facility where he lives and feel important again. And then there is the shadowy figure of Nils Kant. He is revealed in historical chapters interspersed throughout the story. Nils is legendary on the island, evoked almost as boogieman, and Gerlof thinks he was involved in Jens’s disappearance.
The best part about Echoes from the Dead was that Theorin kept me guessing about what happened to Jens and Nils Kant, and about what might happen to Julia and Gerlof.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Pavel & I by Dan Vyleta

Normally I hate being tricked when a book is repackaged with a new cover so that I don’t realize it’s been out for years. But if the publishers hadn't “tricked” me into reading Pavel & I, I would have missed a great read. It has just about everything I want in a mystery: fantastic atmosphere, intriguing characters, enough of a mystery that I’m surprised at times, and an ending that I didn't see coming.
The story takes place in Berlin during the winter of 1946-1947. With resources at a frightening low, this is the worst time for one of the coldest winters on record. Pavel Richter, a decommissioned American soldier, is just barely getting by when another former-soldier comes to him for help covering up the death of a Russian midget. When the friend later turns up dead, Pavel is drawn into an investigation of multiple murders. There’s also a monkey and a hooker with a heart of, well, maybe not quite gold. I loved this book. It’s especially great for readers of Alan Furst, Philip Kerr, and those who, like me, loved Winter in Madrid.