Category Archives: Mysteries

The Keeper of Lost Causes

 

Originally published on Daily Kos Nov 21, 2011

Okay, I will admit right at the start that I have a hard time with stories that include graphic descriptions of physical torture committed by twisted creatures of evil.  I can no longer watch an entire episode of Criminal Minds even though I have enjoyed some of the shows in the past.  Perhaps as I age I become too aware that sick minds do exist and that they have control over bodies that do unspeakably evil things to others.  It is not all fiction.  Sadly.

That said, The Keeper of Lost Causes hooked me at the first page. Heck, the first sentence of the Prologue did it:

She scratched her fingertips on the smooth walls until they bled, and pounded her fists on the thick panes until she could no longer feel her hands.

“She” is Merete Lynggaard, a member of the Danish legislature known as the Folketing and the novel alternates between her story and that of the detective who works to solve the mystery of her disappearance five years earlier.

I tend to judge a book by how many times I think about it when I am not actually reading it.  Can I identify with the characters and their concerns pop into my mind when I am folding the laundry or driving the car?  And when I read the last page do I immediately begin the search for a sequel?  Lacking a sequel, do I immediately begin re-reading the book?

I always preferred Jane Marple to Hercule Poirot because i could more easily relate to her.  Hercule always seemed too weird and one dimensional for my taste.  Aside from his mustache the only thing I knew for sure about him was that his ego was truly obese.  John Rebus I like, but often found myself wanting to give him a good swift kick in the butt and insist that he develop a little self awareness.  Fortunately, he operated in Edinburgh and I can put up with a lot to imagine myself back there again.  I love Charlotte Pitt and her husband Thomas, unlike Kurt Manning, whom I try to tolerate.

Carl Morck is the type of detective I enjoy.  A complicated man, he is recovering from a shooting incident that killed one of his team and paralyzed another but left him with only a bullet graze.  And the sinking guilt that he survived and never drew his weapon.  Police work has lost its appeal for him and he is simply marking time.

Difficult to work with before the shooting, returning from sick leave he finds himself exiled to a basement office and assigned cold cases under a new program dictated by the Danish Folketing.  He found the reassignment less than upsetting:

He was still going to do exactly what he wanted to. Which was, as much as possible, absolutely nothing.

But the curiosity and skill that made him such an outstanding detective in the past that his “eternally skeptical eyes and caustic remarks” were overlooked by his superiors surfaces in an old case that his assistant subtly urges on him.

Oh yes, in addition to a freshly painted basement office, Hafez el-Assad is assigned as his assistant.  Intriguing in his own right, Assad is hired to make coffee, clean the basement and drive Morck in his assigned departmental Peugeot 607.  He brings a bit of his native Syria into the basement with his fragrant spices, teas, music “reminiscent of the bazaar in Sousse,” and his prayer rug.  The relationship between the two men grows throughout the story and provides an occasional smile.

Divorced, but still in contact with his ex-wife, Carl shares his home with his teenage stepson who lives upstairs and favors heavy metal music at full volume, and a lodger who lives in the basement and enjoys operatic arias which also need a high volume.

Just as the two competing musical styles create a certain level of tension in the Morck household, the two competing tales told in alternating chapters create a tension in the reader.  We are introduced to Merete in 2002 at the very beginning of the book when she is locked in a room from which she appears unable to escape.  As we follow her struggles, we learn, through flashbacks, of the accident that took her parents life and left her to raise her brother who was severely injured and suffered brain damage.

The novel alternates between Merete and Carl stories in a thoroughly satisfying manner.  The pacing is taut enough to keep the reader turning the pages and the plot complex enough to engage the reader’s mind.  The main characters are fully realized and easy to identify with although the lesser characters are not as fully drawn.  But then, this is a detective novel, and they don’t really need to be.  The joy is in the mystery and the steps to its solution.

This is part of the wave of Scandanavian mysteries that has been hitting our shores since Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy made such a big hit here in the States.  Although some readers have long been familiar with the genre, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo created a new audience with an appetite for Nordic Noir.

“Jussi Adler-Olsen is Denmark’s premier crime writer. His books routinely top the bestseller lists in northern Europe, and he’s won just about every Nordic crime-writing award, including the prestigious Glass Key Award-also won by Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, and Jo Nesbo. Now, Dutton is thrilled to introduce him to America.” – Amazon

The Kindle edition is translated by Lisa Hartford.  Unfortunately, it is the only work of Adler-Olsen that has yet been translated into English.  And this, the first of four novels in the Q series, was published in August of 2011 four years after its Danish publication.  So I guess it will be a while before the rest of them are available unless one can read Danish.

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Death on the Nile

Death on the Nile

Originally published at Daily Kos on Nov 7, 2011

I can’t think of Agatha Christie without some Art Deco image coming immediately to mind.  It may be as a result of the era she wrote about and in, or it may simply be the style of the covers that I remember from my youth.She will always, for me, bring to mind elegant elongated women in fur or feathered boas and turbans, and draped with long strands of pearls in flapper skirts posed with cigarettes in extended holders.  And the men will always have side-parted, slicked back, black hair and be dressed in white dinner jackets while holding clear martini glasses with one olive.  With music by Scott Joplin.Death on the Nile is filled with such people.

The Cast

Linnet Ridgeway Doyle the beautiful, charming heiress to a great American fortune living in England and appearing to enjoy the best of everything.

Joanna Southwood, “a tall thin young woman of twenty-seven, with a long clever face and freakishly plucked eyebrows,” apparent friend to Linnet.

Jacqueline de Bellefort (Jackie), a friend of Linnet’s from their days together at school.  Her father lost the family money during the 1929 crash, leaving her in reduced financial circumstances.

Simon Doyle, an Englishman, the love of Jackie’s life and her fiancee, who goes to work for Linnet as a land agent and within three months becomes her husband.  (He is blond, but I’m willing to bet he wears his hair parted and slicked back.)

Mrs. Allerton, a cousin of Joanna Southwood, of whom she disapproves, and her son, Tim, who appears enjoy Joanna’s correspondence more than her company, and is devoted to his mother.

Mrs Otterbourne, who writes erotic novels and wears dreadful turbans and her daughter,Rosalie, repeatedly described as being sulky although pretty.

Andrew Pennington, Linnet’s American trustee who races to Egypt to meet Linnet when he hears of her marriage.

Louise Borgett, Linnet’s maid,

Signor Guido Richett, Italian archeologist

Miss Van Schuyler, wealthy American snob, her young poor relative and traveling companionCornelia Robson, and her nurse, Miss Bowers.

Jim Fanthorp, nephew of Linnet’s English solicitor, although unknown to her personally, he is sent to Egypt when his uncle learns of the presence of Pennington.

Mr. Fergusson, a rather outspoken, shabbily dressed anti-capitalist.

Dr. Bessner a German physician travelling on the Karnak.

Colonel Race, “a man of unadvertised goings and comings. He was usually to be found in one of the outposts of Empire where trouble was brewing.”  He joins the Karnak at the Second Cataract.

The Story

Agatha Christie is at her usual best, weaving multiple sub-plots in and out of the murder mystery that drives the novel.  Although her books have never been character studies, the people are drawn with just enough depth to make them appear real, if slightly stereotypical.

Seeming to already have everything, but lacking a love of her own, Linnet Ridgeway steals her friend Jackie’s fiancee, Simon Doyle.  Deciding to honeymoon in Egypt, they are followed everywhere by Jackie de Bellefort.  Always polite and never directly threatening, Jackie even appears on the Karnak for the Nile cruise.

Hercule Poirot is on the same ship as part of his planned vacation and encounters the Doyles and the other characters (except Joanne Southwood, who is the only one not on board). Before sailing he has a chance, at Linnet’s request, to try to disuade Jackie from stalking the Doyles.  During their conversation, she indicates that she would very much like to shoot Linnet in the head and shows Hercule the small handgun she carries in her purse.

While onboard the Karnak, Linnet Doyle is shot in the head exactly as Jacqueline de Bellefort described.  But Jackie was in her cabin supervised by Miss Van Schuyler’s nurse, Miss Bowers, at the time of the murder, having just shot her ex-fiancee, Simon Doyle, in the leg during a quarrel.

So, who killed Linnet Doyle?  And what secrets do the others hide?

My Favorite Quote

“There’s no reason why women shouldn’t behave like rational beings,” Simon asserted stolidly.
Poirot said dryly: “Quite frequently they do. That is even more upsetting!”