Reviews of Jack Gantos, P.D. James, and more…
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DEAD END IN NORVELT
By Jack Gantos
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. $15.99
Jack Gantos has received many accolades and awards for his children’s books: Rotten Ralph, Hole in My Life, and the Joey Pigza series. His latest, Dead End in Norvelt, won the Newbery Medal Award for Best Children’s Book of 2011 and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction. This is a novel that is part memoir and part fiction, with a lot of history interpreted by a sensitive youth and his aging, thoughtful mentor.
Eleven-year-old Jack Gantos lives in Norvelt, Pennsylvania, in 1962 with his parents. He inauspiciously begins his summer vacation by getting grounded for the duration. Jack does, however get an occasional reprieve, whenever he helps his elderly arthritic neighbor, Miss Volker, write obituaries. Miss Volker is the medical examiner in town and they are both kept busy since almost every old lady there is dying. Norvelt itself is dying out, and the suspects are limited and may be anyone’s neighbor.
The flavor of Dead End in Norvelt is comparable to a Jean Shepherd story—funny, quirky and naïve—but the twist here, and it is an exceptional one, is Gantos’ respect for the individuals in his book. Miss Volker testifies that “… every living soul is a book of their own history, which sits on the ever-growing shelf in the library of human memories.” And as such, she believes the passing of individuals is momentous and worthy of relating.
The book’s slapstick humor is infectious: Jack digs a “fake atomic bomb shelter” for his dad; at one point they paint-bomb the drive-in from a J-3 surplus plane bought for twenty-five dollars; Miss Volker dips her hands in hot melted wax to relieve her arthritic “claws;” and she cauterizes Jack’s nose capillaries when they drip blood “like dragon flames.”
Middle school-aged boys will especially love the simplicity of life at this time, the fascinating lives the dead women lived, and the actual history the author has included. Gantos packs the book with facts about everything from Francisco Pizarro and Alexander Berkman, to the Great Influenza of 1918 and Cleopatra. “If you don’t know your history you won’t know the difference between the truth and wishful thinking.”
DEATH COMES TO PEMBERLEY
By P.D. James
New York: Knopf, 2011. $25.95
Parallel novels—those that exist within or borrow from the framework of a novel by another author—are nothing new. In recent years, two novels have been written attempting to satisfy the “what happened next?” itch inspired by Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca: Susan Hill’s Mrs. De Winter (1993) and Sally Beauman’s Rebecca’s Tale (2001). In 1966, Jean Rhys created one of the more extraordinary literary revivals in Wide Sargasso Sea, exploring the life of Antoinette Cosway, first wife to Mr. Rochester, the mad woman in the attic of Charlotte Bronte’s gothic Jane Eyre. And then there is Jane Austen. Her books have inspired several writers to continue narratives that Austen herself ended at a satisfactory concluding point. The itch still persists: Did Sir Walter Elliot of Persuasion become trapped by the next title-hunter to tickle his vanity? Could Fanny Price of Mansfield Park really be happy with the tedious Edmund Bertram? And the perennial question: Did Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice live happily ever after?
P.D. James—a Jane Austin enthusiast and one of the UK’s foremost crime writers—has made her own foray into the world of “what happened next?” with Death Comes to Pemberley, a crime novel that revisits the world of Pride and Prejudice six years after the original book finished. In this intriguing parallel novel, George Wickham, the husband of Elizabeth’s wayward sister Lydia, becomes a suspect in a murder committed on Mr. Darcy’s land.
There are questions to ask of this novel: Does it work as a tribute to a book the author clearly admires, and does it work as a crime novel? The answer to both questions has to be “not entirely.” P.D. James re-creates with considerable success Austen’s style and dry irony, and there are some notable touches of wit, particularly when the deeply unpleasant William Collins, or the object of his obsequious regard, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, put in an offstage appearance.
The problem with literary revivals of well-known books is that the central characters are well established by the original writer. Attempts to develop them by a second writer are rarely satisfactory: Mr. Darcy as a new man with twenty-first century sensibilities, suffering from self-doubt and indecision, is not the Mr. Darcy that Austen created. Elizabeth, vivid and witty in the original, here seems oddly low key. Lydia, a masterpiece of characterization in the original, is one-dimensional in this revival.
Some of the social contexts explored in Death Comes to Pemberley sit uneasily in the Regency setting of the book. The apparent emancipation of Darcy’s sister Georgiana and the developing egalitarian instincts of Darcy do not have their roots in Austen’s original text and fail to be fully convincing. This is P.D. James’s Pemberley, not Jane Austen’s.
Does Death Comes to Pemberley work as a crime novel? P.D. James is a mistress of shadows beneath apparently sunlit surfaces. The dark, the dangerous, and the eerie all compete for space in her books, where killers can be ruthless, egotistical, and cruel. None of this is appropriate for a Jane Austen scenario and the lack of modern policing and modern forensics leaves little for P.D. James to work with. There is no real investigation and the solution to the murder mystery comes in the form of a long confession. It is in the investigative aspects of the story that James’s mastery of Austen’s prose style comes unstuck: talk of prime suspects sits uncomfortably here.
There are moments of vivid narrative: The arrival of Lydia’s coach in the night, as well as the search in the woods for a dying or dead man, are tense and exciting; the narrative moves with satisfying pace. However, this is not the P.D. James of Innocent Blood or of the Dalgleish novels. For her readers, it represents an interesting foray into new territory, but not an entirely satisfactory one.
DEATH OF A KINGFISHER
By M.C. Beaton
New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2012. $24.99
A little darker and edgier than its twenty-seven predecessors in M.C. Beaton’s deservedly popular Hamish Macbeth Highland cozy series, Death of a Kingfisher explores Scotland in recession and Hamish in a more touchy than usual state of mind. To deal with the financial slack, quaint little villages such as Braikie have to find ways to encourage tourism. The town appoints a toothsome, strawberry blonde lassie named Mary Leinster—low-cut blouses, twinges of the sight and all—as their council director of tourism. Mary has great plans—renaming Buchan’s Wood as “the Fairy Glen” and building a pricey gift shop. And once Hamish gazes into those heavily lashed blue eyes, he has great plans as well, having been recently meditating on his failures with women.
When a horrendous and rich elderly woman, a newcomer to the town, is slain by one of Beaton’s most ingenious murder devices, Hamish soon has his hands full with a frustrating investigation. He is accompanied by a new constable—a gossipy layabout named Dick Fraser, thrust upon Hamish by inimical influences in the police hierarchy—as well as the usual cast of Lochdubh regulars, including Hamish’s marvelous wildcat Sonsie and lop-eared dog Lugs. Despite the prevailing sunshine and a blue Highland sky, however, Beaton closes this engaging mystery on a chilly note, hinting that winter is coming—and with it, yet another installment of her long-running exploration of human vicissitude.
—Mitzi M. Brunsdale
By William Landay
New York: Delacorte Press, 2012. $26.00
The third novel by US lawyer William Landay is a remarkable and emotional journey that puts this work right up at the apex of legal thrillers, rubbing shoulders with the works of authors such as Scott Turow, John Grisham, and Michael Connelly.
When teenager Ben Rifkin is found dead from a brutal stabbing in a wooded area close to his local New England school, all eyes turn to Jacob Barber, the fourteen-year-old classmate who Rifkin had bullied harshly. The problem is that Jacob’s father, Andy Barber, is the assistant district attorney for the county. Andy is soon taken off the case as the investigation gathers momentum. The stresses to the Barber family start to form cracks in their “happy family” façade as Andy tries to protect his son from the rigors of a murder case, something that his wife Laurie has trouble reconciling. Adding to the intrigue, the story is told in first-person narrative, from the viewpoint of Andy Barber—yet how reliable is the assistant DA in retelling the events that this case has dredged up?
The tension ratchets up when we learn that Jacob’s grandfather (Andy’s father) also had the shadow of murder over him and we realize there could be some violent genetic link in the Barber family … or not. Either way, as the trial looms, the Barbers become ostracized from their tightly knit suburb of Boston, making the later stages of the novel fraught with anxiety until the startling dénouement. At times, we feel the hidden depths of the narrator leading us forward, but the anxiety is such that we sense something darker lurking in this suburban community, something far from the white picket-fences, shielding the families from their secrets.
A DOUBLE DEATH ON THE BLACK ISLE
By A.D. Scott
New York: Atria, 2011. $15.00
A.D. Scott’s second Highlands mystery, A Double Death on the Black Isle, takes her 1950s heroine Joanne Ross to Scotland’s Black Isle, a picturesque, occasionally forbidding peninsula surrounded by three firths, where Joanne’s school friend, Patricia Ord Mackenzie, lives in an elegant Georgian manor house and supervises her parents’ farming enterprise. Patricia’s sudden decision—sparked by her unplanned pregnancy—to marry a “handsome devil” of a local fisherman shocks Joanne and horrifies her socially prominent mother. It also precipitates actions that shake the fabric of this quiet postwar town to its foundation, namely two mysterious deaths on the same day.
Joanne, who after ten years has left her abusive husband to pursue a job as a reporter for the Highland Gazette, plunges into the deep water of old village rivalries, clashes between farmers and fishermen, and her personal struggles. One of which is her attraction to McAllister, her editor-in-chief and a decent man who’s intensely drawn to her as well.
A.D. Scott has a firm grasp of Highland society and its often intense feuds, her setting is appropriately enigmatic, and her understanding of Joanne’s situation is both sensitive and insightful. In particular, Scott’s portrayal of the permutations of Patricia and Joanne’s friendship—born in the misery of a harsh Scottish boarding school and stretching into a fragile and ultimately exploitative relationship—makes this excursion into secrets a deeply satisfying read.
—Mitzi M. Brunsdale
By Connie Dial
Sag Harbor, NY: The Permanent Press, 2012. $29.00
In Connie Dial’s latest crime novel, Fallen Angels, newly promoted Captain Josie Corsino of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Hollywood Division certainly has her hands full. First, a minor starlet is found dead with a smile on her face; then the body of the girl’s agent turns up. Josie soon learns that the actress was involved with a prominent councilman’s drug-addicted son and that the boy’s father was a close friend and mentor of her superior, Deputy Chief Eric Bright—who is not too fond of Josie and who garners little respect from those he supervises.
As she proceeds, Josie also discovers that her son David, an aspiring musician, is somehow connected to the dead girl and the councilman’s son. To make matters worse, Josie’s estranged husband’s business card turns up among the dead girl’s belongings. Plagued by fears that members of her own family will be implicated in the murders, Josie finds her professional life entangled in a web of personal and political connections.
A former journalist and twenty-seven-year veteran of the LAPD, author Connie Dial has stocked Josie’s division with complex, colorful, and realistic characters. The officers, ranking from adjutants to chiefs, are deftly drawn with unique personalities, as are the underworld pimps, addicts, and hit men with whom the police interact. Josie has two seasoned colleagues who help her crack the case: much-married, hard-drinking Detective Red Behan, a friend and confidant who Josie considers to be the best detective in Hollywood, and Lieutenant Marge Bailey, who commands the largest vice unit in Los Angeles and is Josie’s only female friend on the force.
Dial takes the reader into a world where police business is handled at its highest level. Josie Corsino is a seasoned professional who knows every aspect of her job, including its political ramifications. She works long, hard, unglamorous hours, drinks too much, carries a gun at all times—and uses it when necessary—and is far from being a dutiful wife. In these and other ways, she is a certain kind of modern woman. She may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but she is realistic, and readers will recognize in her aspects of themselves.
THE IRON WILL OF SHOESHINE CATS
By Hesh Kestin
London: Mulholland UK, 2012. $16.95
This oddity was first published by independent house Dzanc Books in the US, but since Stephen King wrote that “The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats may just be the best book you never read …” it was picked up by Mulholland in the UK and issued as mass market paperback in March. King’s hyperbolic comment is pretty close to the truth, and for pure reading pleasure, Kestin’s understated and amusing Jewish gangster epic is just that—epic.
Written in first person from the perspective of Russell Newhouse, the author gives us 1963 New York as the backdrop of this tale of gangsters and immigrants and the consequences of their actions and inactions. Newhouse is a twenty-year-old student in Brooklyn, chasing as much tail as he can get. Like the term “tail,” readers should be warned that Kestin’s book is peppered with the language and racial attitudes that were prevalent at the time.
Newhouse’s life takes a hard-left when he becomes involved in the Bhotke Young Men’s Society, an immigrant association that represents and assists the older generation and a throwback to when Jewish immigrants fled war-torn Europe and Nazism, grouping together to help each other out. At the meeting, Newhouse is hired by legendary Yiddish gangster Shushan Cats—a.k.a. Shoeshine Cats. Kestin’s terse writing style is a joy to read, as the lean narrative paints pictures in your mind, for example in this first description of Cats: “The figure who stood there—it seemed for minutes—was one of those small men native to Brooklyn who appeared to have been boiled down from someone twice the size, the kind who when a doctor tries to give him an injection the needle bends.”
Newhouse is soon hired by Cats to assist in the funeral matters following Cats’s mother’s death and the week-long Shiva period. Newhouse takes on these duties, since refusing Cats is not something people generally do if they want to live a happy life. But soon the mysterious Cats vanishes and Newhouse finds himself taking on the mantle of the Jewish gangster’s empire, which leads the narrative into some dark, yet comic, episodes. Shadowing the surreal humor are reminders that the world is far from benign, and men like Cats are necessary when events such as the Holocaust or the assassination of John F. Kennedy occur. Readers will chuckle at this novel’s witty reflections on life, as well as at the dialogue that at times is reminiscent of Raymond Chandler at the height of his powers. A remarkable find and worthy of Stephen King’s praise.
By S.J. Parris
New York: Doubleday, 2012. $26.95
The Tudor dynasty of late medieval England is popular with novelists across the range. Novels that are at the “literary” end of the market, such as Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall; popular romance books, such as Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl; and children’s novels, such as Julia Jarman’s The Time Travelling Cat and the Tudor Treasure, have all explored the Tudor era in various ways. It was a period marked by conflict, religious turmoil, and brutal and bloody regimes, and therefore offers great scope for writers of crime fiction, as the success of C.J. Sansom and Rory Clements demonstrates.
S.J. Parris is another crime writer exploring this period. Sacrilege is the third book in her Giordano Bruno series, set in the England of Elizabeth Tudor. Bruno is an Italian refugee from the Continental Inquisition, an apostate monk who has come to England to live in its more enlightened (for the period) climate. He is a spy for Sir Francis Walsingham, principal secretary to Elizabeth I. The author has thus placed her protagonist at the center of the political and religious intrigues of Elizabethan times.
Parris, in her previous novels, confronts real historical events: the Babington Plot, and the attempts by the Howard family to put the Catholic Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, on the English throne. Sacrilege is based on more personal events for Bruno: Sophia Underhill, a woman who appears in the first Bruno novel, Heresy, returns to his life. Sophia is now a widow in flight from the charge that she murdered her brutal husband.
Bruno travels to Canterbury, the scene of the murder and also the site of the murder of Thomas Becket, a Catholic martyr from the time of the Plantagenet Dynasty, to try to solve the murder and save Sophia from trial, an inevitable guilty verdict, and execution by burning. Disguised as a man, Sophia travels with him, and Bruno has to hide her with sympathizers in Canterbury where she is in danger of being recognized.
So far, so good. However, the book contains some significant weaknesses. The plot is over-complicated, with conspiracy, child murder, and treachery all coming together in a complex strand that is never completely unraveled. It relies on the coincidental juxtaposition of crimes that allows Bruno to reveal a conspiracy at the same time as solving the murder he has come to Canterbury to investigate. Sophia travels with Bruno but, apart from occasional references to the importance of secrecy, vanishes until she is needed again for plot development. This results in the action slowing down and makes the novel sag in places.
Writers of historical fiction have the problem of re-creating the voice of the era while making their characters’ words accessible to modern readers. Putting modern English in their mouths is acceptable—after all, this is what they were speaking: the contemporary language of their period. There are some dissonances here. Parris uses the slightly formal tone many writers adopt to represent earlier forms of English, but this is inconsistent and sometimes coupled uncomfortably with twenty-first century idioms in a way that pulls the reader out of the Tudor world she is trying to re-create. Phrases such as “not your ordinary churchman,” “you lot,” and “you look rough” sit uncomfortably with “filthy Spanish dog” and “whoreson.” This kind of juxtaposition is more reminiscent of the 1980s BBC series Blackadder, or even the 1971 film Carry On, Henry, than of historical fiction.
This intrusion of the twenty-first century continues in the way the characters are presented. The protagonists are much too modern. Sophia, without any background to make this believable, is a feminist before her time. She does not ring true as a character and it is hard for the reader to empathize with Bruno’s passion for her, even as we are asked to accept that he puts his own life and the lives of others at risk for her.
A repeated subplot throughout the series is a lost book ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus (which is not very lost as it has a habit of popping up in unexpected places and then being mislaid again by Bruno). So far, this subplot has not developed beyond this point and Parris should move it on or bring it to an end.
Sacrilege is, at the very least, readable, with dark Tudor set pieces (plague, secret crypts, dark and narrow streets), but Parris, who has clearly done her research, might benefit from placing her characters more in the day-to-day world of Elizabethan England, rather than concentrating on over-complex plots that do not entirely convince.