Review 2180: They Do It With Mirrors

I am fairly sure I have never read They Do It With Mirrors before, but as I recently watched a TV adaptation, it was difficult for me to judge how easy it would have been to predict the outcome. I suspect it wouldn’t be.

Jane Marple has not seen her old school friend Carrie Louise for many years, but their mutual friend Ruth thinks something is not right, so she asks Jane to visit if invited. Carrie Louise is a frail woman whom others yearn to protect. She was left with a fortune after the death of her first husband. Her second husband left her for a dancer. Her third husband, Lewis Serrocold, is using wings of her massive home as a rehabilitation center for young criminals.

When Jane arrives, she finds quite a few people residing in or visiting the main house. Carrie Louise’s granddaughter Gina is there with her American husband Walter. Carrie Louise’s daughter Mildred is widowed and living there. Alex and Stephen, the two sons of Carrie Louise’s second husband, are there (well, Alex soon arrives on a visit), and they all get a surprise visit from Christian Gulbrandsen, an executor of the estate trust and Carrie Louise’s stepson. He is there to talk to Lewis, who is momentarily away, but Miss Marple sees them conferring outside when Lewis returns home.

After dinner, Christian has gone to his room to write letters when one of the inmates, Edgar Lawson, strikes up an argument with Lewis Serrocold and starts flashing a gun around. Edgar sometimes says different important men are his father and has moments of confusion and paranoia. This time he says Serrocold is his father and has been spying on him. The two go into his office, from which the others can hear the argument. They hear a gun fired outside, and then the gun in the office is fired, but when they get into the office, both men are fine. Later, though, Christian Gulbrandsen is found shot to death.

When questioned by the police, Lewis tells them Christian suspected Carrie Louise was being poisoned, her arthritis symptoms being similar to slow arsenic poisoning. And sure enough, when the police check a bottle of tonic that Serrocold told her not to take, it’s poisoned.

Soon there are two more deaths, and insights are needed from Miss Marple.

There are a lot of characters in this story and perhaps they’re not as vivid as Christie’s usually are, but she has set us an entertaining puzzle to solve.

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Review 2179: A Shock

If I hadn’t been reading A Shock for my James Tait Black project, I certainly would not have picked it out based on its description on the back cover: “a rondel of interlocking stories . . . both deracinated and potent with place, druggy but shot through with a terrifying penetration of reality.” How pretentious.

The stories are unusually linked, by characters but also by stories told in a pub. Although I found some of them interesting, I did not find them emotionally engaging, and the explicit sex in some of them is not my thing.

Notice that I haven’t said what they are about. That’s because it’s hard to describe, and a short recap of each story wouldn’t help. Although not exactly magical realism, some of the stories, while apparently set in reality, become a little fantastical.

And that’s what I have to say about that.

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Review 2178: Triptych

I have to admit, I looked for this first Will Trent novel after getting hooked on the TV series. Just a little warning: if you have already watched the series, the TV folks have made one major change from the book that may surprise you.

In Atlanta, young teenage girls have been found after being raped, beaten, and having their tongues either partially or completely bitten off. Detective Michael Ormewood is called out to a similar case, only this time the woman is dead, and she’s not a teenage girl but a middle-aged prostitute.

The next day, Ormewood meets Will Trent, a Special Agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. He will be working the case with Ormewood. Will is unusual because he is dyslexic, although he tries to keep this problem a secret.

In the meantime, John Shelley has been recently released from prison, where he served 25 years for a similar crime, committed when he was 16. John has always maintained his innocence, right up to his last parole hearing when he wanted to get out before his mother died of cancer. John has been out for only a short time when he learns that someone has stolen his identity, but curiously, used it to apply for credit cards and buy things while keeping a good credit score.

Angie Polaski, a detective on the vice squad, has gotten peripherally involved in the investigation. She has ties to both Ormewood and Trent that she’s keeping secret.

This is a well-written, fast-paced novel that is part mystery, part thriller. It has interesting characters, and I enjoyed it very much.

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Review 2177: Fortune

Fortune, shortlisted for the Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize, is set in late 1920’s Trinidad. People have been jumping out of windows in New York, but there is an oil boom in Texas, and Eddie Wade foresees another one in Trinidad.

Sonny Chatterjee has oil seeping into the soil of his cocoa plantation, and his plants are dying. Charles Macleod of Apex Industries has been trying to get an oil lease from him, but he has seen the destruction caused by the large oil companies and refuses to let that happen to the land his father worked so hard to buy. However, Eddie convinces him that his smaller company will take more care and give Sonny a better deal, so Sonny agrees that if Eddie can come up with the $10K to get started, he can. The trouble is, Eddie has no money.

Eddie’s truck breaks down on the way into town, so he walks. Local businessman Tito Fernandes picks him up and trusts him instantly. Even though Tito is in serious difficulties because of his stock market investments, he finds the money Eddie needs.

The back cover of the novel makes clear that the fly in the ointment will be provided by Tito’s much younger wife Ada, and the affair that begins between her and Eddie. This novel is based on a real event—a fire in 1928. Smyth has changed the name of one historical person from Bobbie to Eddie, but it’s not clear just how much else is fictional. Certainly, I found the love triangle aspect uninteresting and unimaginative, but I guess if it really happened . . . .

The fact is that I didn’t actually care about any of these characters. Further, the writing is close to being spare, but it lacks the specificity and vividness of most spare writing, so I can only call it trimmed. It’s more mundane in nature. The setting itself occasionally comes to life but more often does not. I didn’t feel like I knew what it was like to be in Trinidad at this supposedly exciting time.

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Review 2176: The Duke’s Children

This last of Trollope’s Palliser novels begins with the unexpected death of the Duchess of Omnium, Glencora Palliser. This event begins a series of incidents that makes the Duke even more unhappy.

First, he learns that his daughter Mary has fallen in love with his son’s friend Frank Tregear while Mary and Glencora were traveling in Italy. Apparently, Glencora approved of the situation even though Tregear has neither position nor fortune. The Duke feels that Tregear does not have a position fit for his daughter, so he refuses permission but is upset that Mary is so unhappy.

Then Lord Silverbridge, his oldest son, tells him he has decided to run for Parliament—on the Conservative side, when the Pallisers have been prominent Liberals for generations. This despite the fact that Silverbridge doesn’t seem to have any strong political beliefs at all. However, the Duke is very pleased when Silverbridge tells him he would like to marry Lady Mabel Grex.

Lady Mabel has known Tregear for years, and they pledged to love each other. But neither of them has any money, so Mabel recently released him, only a few months before he met Mary. Although she has had several proposals of marriage, she cannot bear the idea of being married to any of those men until she meets Silverbridge, whom she sees is kind. However, when he proposes to her, she doesn’t want to be too hasty, so she turns him down.

Much to her later regret, Silverbridge, who thinks Mabel has been unkind, meets Miss Isabel Boncassen, the daughter of a prominent American of inferior roots. After a series of misunderstandings, Silverbridge decides he prefers Isabel.

The Duke remembers how his Glencora had been in love with another man when she was talked into marrying him, and that had worked out well. But Mary isn’t yielding, and soon he has two children of whose choices he disapproves.

I found this novel a fitting end to the series, although I was sorry Glencora died. The Duke seems to become closer to his children as a result, though. The interchanges between him and his two sons, Silverbridge and Gerald, are well handled, and it is nice to see all behaving affectionately. I have to admit that I preferred Lady Mabel to Isabel, who doesn’t have much of a personality until the end. However, I enjoyed this series very much.

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Review 2175: White Shadow

In this second book of Roy Jacobsen’s Barrøy trilogy, it is World War II and the Nazi’s have invaded Norway. The small island of Barrøy, the home of Ingrid’s family, has been evacuated. Ingrid has been living on the main island working in the canning factory, and her family is dispersed.

One day Ingrid defies the Germans and gets on a boat to row back to Barrøy. She goes into her family home without paying much attention to signs that someone has been in it, and it’s as if her brain refuses to see at first that there are dead bodies on the shore. A German ship carrying Russian prisoners has been bombed. She spends a day covering and burying bodies but eventually finds one man alive—a Russian, badly injured, up in the loft of the house.

Ingrid takes care of him but also must keep him safe from the Germans, who are observing her from the main island. She also is trying to bring the farm back into shape and fish to feed them.

The novel takes us to the end of the war, during which Ingrid has a difficult time.

Jacobsen tells this story with his usual pure, spare prose, a moving novel about human transcendence over great difficulty. I just love this series.

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Review 2174: The Black Spectacles

Detective Inspector Andrew Elliot is vacationing in Italy when he overhears an English party discussing some poisonings in a town back home. He is struck at first sight by Marjorie Wills. This proves to be unfortunate, because when he returns home, he is assigned the poisoning case and Marjorie is a suspect.

The poisoning case involves someone substituting poisoned chocolates for harmless ones in a local shop. One boy has died. However, this case is soon overshadowed by the murder of Marcus Chesney, Marjorie’s uncle, under bizarre circumstances. Chesney has a hobby horse that people aren’t observant, so he designs a demonstration of his point. During the demonstration, a bizarrely dressed man comes in to the room where Chesney is manipulating objects at a desk and forces a capsule down his throat. Although this is part of the demonstration, it is not part of it for the capsule to be poisoned. Chesney dies and his assistant is found outside bashed over the head. Later, the unconscious assistant is also poisoned.

Present are Chesney’s friend Dr. Ingram, the assistant, Marjorie, and Marjorie’s fianceé, George Harding, whom she met on the trip. Not present is Dr. Joe Chesney, Marcus’s brother, out on a house call.

As Elliot investigates, things keep pointing to Marjorie, but he can’t prove anything. Finally, he asks Gideon Fell for help.

The Black Spectacles is supposedly Carr’s most popular book, even though it doesn’t feature a locked door mystery, his specialty. I enjoyed it a lot, more than the other books I’ve read by Carr, although I immediately picked out the killer and never wavered. Still, I never figured out exactly what was going on during the demonstration.

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 2173: Iza’s Ballad

When Ettie Szȍcs’s husband Vince dies, she is terrified of being left alone in her house in the small town where they’ve lived for many years. So, she is relieved when her daughter Iza tells her Ettie will come to live with her in Pest, in her modern apartment. Iza has always been the light of her and Vince’s lives, a proud defender of her father as a child after he was dismissed from his position as a judge for political reasons, an excellent student who worked against the Nazis during the war, now a respected doctor, a post-Stalinist modern woman. Ettie also has an invitation to stay in her own house with Antal, her ex-son-in-law, who bought it. But even though she still treats Antal like a son, she pays little attention to his invitation. In fact, she is more than a little befuddled by grief.

Iza is self-assured and always tries to do the right thing. However, she allows her mother no input into her own fate. She arranges to sell her mother’s house to Antal and puts her mother on a train directly after the funeral, not even giving her time to attend the little gathering that was planned. When eventually Ettie arrives in Pest expecting to see her furniture and little keepsakes, she finds Iza has sold or given away most of her possessions.

Ettie just wants to be useful. Although a simple soul who is easily frightened, she is still an active woman in her 70’s who is used to doing everything for herself and her husband. In Pest, she thought she could cook and clean for her daughter, but Iza has a housekeeper and doesn’t want Ettie to interfere. Iza believes Ettie should be happy to relax, but Ettie literally has nothing to do.

Iza works hard and then wants time alone or with her friends. It takes a remark from Domokos, Iza’s lover, to make her realize that Ettie is lonely. But even when they try to arrange a treat for Ettie, it’s something they want to do rather than something that would please Ettie.

The introduction to the NYRB edition says the novel asks what to do with the old and talks about Ettie’s inability as a country person to adapt to the city, but I think this novel is more a character study of Iza, a person who always thinks she knows best and is blind to the feelings of others. Her marriage to Antal was her only failure, and she still doesn’t understand why he left, since he was clearly in love with her. It’s a fascinating but sad novel.

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Review 2172: The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida

Just by coincidence, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is the second book set in Sri Lanka that I’ve read in a few months. It is part of my Booker Prize shortlist project.

It’s December 1987 and Maali Almeida is dead. He finds himself watching his body being thrown into a lake, but he can’t remember who killed him or why. A photographer, a gambler, an irresponsible and unfaithful gay lover, Maali had a purpose—to reveal the photos he’s taken of the carnage and double-dealing involved in the civil war in the hopes of stopping it.

Faced with a grotesque and bewildering afterlife, Maali is determined to get his two friends, Jaki, who is in love with him, and DD, her cousin with whom Maali was in love, to find his hidden photographs and make sure they are seen. To do this, he has to figure out the inconsistent rules of the In Between, avoid being consumed by the demon Mahakali, and learn how to be heard by humans.

As with Lincoln in the Bardo, I was not enamored of Karunatilaka’s conception of the afterlife nor was I very interested in the philosophical ramifications of Maali’s conversations with other dead people, demons, and animals. However, I was very interested in his depictions of Sri Lanka’s war and got dragged into the action almost despite myself. His humor is not mine, however.

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Review 2171: Stories for Christmas and the Festive Season

Although May is an odd time to review a collection of Christmas stories, I didn’t receive a copy of this book until much after the season. This entertaining collection is ordered by when the story occurs during the festive season and includes works by women published during the 20th century. Some of the authors are well known and others are only remembered now for a specific work. The introduction by Simon Thomas discusses each story in turn and tells something interesting about it.

The first story, “The Turkey Season” by Alice Munro, provides insight into a side of the holidays we may not have considered, factory workers processing turkeys. As usual, Munro is a masterly storyteller.

Some of the stories are amusing, such as “This Year It Will Be Different” by Maeve Binchey, about a housewife who goes on strike during the holidays, or “Skating” by Cornelia Otis Skinner, about a woman’s attempt to learn ice-skating. Others start out amusing but have a deeper meaning, for example, “The Christmas Pageant” by Barbara Robinson, about what happens when “the worst children in the world” get involved in the pageant or “Christmas in a Bavarian Village,” which subtly foreshadows World War II.

I especially liked “The Little Christmas Tree” by Stella Gibbons, about how a solitary woman’s Christmas plans are changed with the arrival of some children and “The Christmas Present” by Richmal Crompton, about an unusual gift passed down in the family from mother to daughter. The book finishes with a sprightly monologue by a black maid in “On Leavin’ Notes” by Alice Childers.

I received this book from the publishers in exchange for a free and fair review.

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