Author Archive for Agatha – Page 3

Michael Stanley: Dying to Live

This wonderful series only continues to get better. Weirdly, I also think it may be one of the more realistic police procedural series around, as the careful, detail oriented work carried out by Detective Kubu and his fellow officers seems like what painstaking police work may actually resemble. Detective Kubu is also immensely appealing – his happy family life, his love of food and wine, and his leaps of deduction that come while napping (very Nero Wolfe of him) make him one of my favorite characters in mystery fiction at the moment.

Set in Bostwana, Kubu’s work often involves customs that to Western eyes may seem very strange and the connections between traditional western perception and the African culture is one beautifully bridged by Stan Trollip and Michael Sears, who write together as Michael Stanley. The book opens with the death of a bushman, who, when autopsied, appears to have the organs of a much younger man. The man himself appears from the outside to be quite elderly. He even has white hair, which is apparently unusual for bushmen.

The death of the bushman and the subsequent disappearance of his corpse leads Kubu on a complex investigation that involves the search for plants in the Kalahari that promise a longer life. The trade that goes on for muti, as the potions prescribed by African witch doctors are called, seems to involve secrecy, conspiracy and a good amount of danger. The malls described in the book have storefronts operated by the witch doctors, who have higher up clients that use their services discretely.

While Kubu is himself skeptical, his own wife pleads with him at one point to obtain muti for their adopted daughter who is HIV positive and suffering from possible AIDS symptoms as the story progresses. At one point, Kubu thinks to himself: “Was Mabuku suggesting there might be something in the black magic of these abominable witch doctors? But then he realized Mabuku was thinking about belief. No one knew what people carry in their heads from childhood.” This thought is a guide and compass for Kubu as he negotiates this case which has far reaching tendrils. As always this is a thoughtful, entertaining read that had me thinking long after I finished the book.

Robin’s Take on Thrillers

This is an excerpt from a talk I gave at the Graubner Library in Romeo, Michigan in 2012.

I got started reading mysteries, like many of you, with Nancy Drew. Nancy was just the “gateway drug” – after her I devoured Agatha Christie, then Sayers, then Marsh, and eventually my dear departed father-in-law introduced me to contemporary mysteries. I have him to thank for my love of Sara Paretsky, Lawrence Block, Dick Francis, Lillian O’Donnell, and Tony Hillerman. Since we opened our bookstore 20 years ago my reading journey has been a varied one, but I’ve always loved the suspense part of the genre.

Mysteries were “invented” by Edgar Allan Poe, who published The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841, which features the first Detective, C. Auguste Dupin. Poe of course is also the inventor of the horror and science fiction genres, bringing his gothic, noir-ish tone to all of his writing. Wilkie Collins, heavily influenced by Charles Dickens (who was a personal friend) wrote many books, two of which are still regarded as classics of the mystery genre, The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868).

And of course the detective novel was firmly implanted in the public’s imagination by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal creation, Sherlock Holmes, who made his first appearance in A Study in Scarlet (1886).   If Poe gave mysteries a tone – noir – and the idea of an omniscient detective, and Collins added suspense and atmosphere, Doyle gave his detective the brain power he would need to solve any case through examining the evidence. All of these threads follow through the history of mystery – the suspense thread introduced by Collins, the dark, noir tone introduced by Poe, and the flat out detection introduced by Doyle.

In 1938 one of the greatest suspense novels ever written was published by Daphne du Maurier. Rebecca is still a fresh classic, steeped in atmosphere, creepy psychology, and yes, suspense, as Rebecca’s dead spirit seems to haunt and control the action in the story. The gothic influences of both Collins and Poe are alive and well in this novel.

The 1950’s brought a development of the more psychological aspects of crime to the table, as books like Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) introduced a main character who was absolutely morally corrupt. He is a murderer who kills to get what he wants. You are drawn into the stories because Highsmith is a great storyteller, and it’s fascinating to try and figure out Ripley’s twisted motives and behaviors. Of course the contemporary “Dexter” books by Jeff Lindsay are a new take on this model.

All these mystery strands – atmosphere, psychology, and often the simple chase or quest model – come to fruition in the contemporary suspense novel. The psychological strand introduced by Collins, the gothic tone introduced by Poe, and the logical detection introduced by Doyle are still present, they are just changed up and adapted to a modern format. I sat down once and tried to analyze what makes a modern suspense novel a suspense novel, and here’s what I came up with.

The story has to “up the ante.” The main character has to have some kind of mission which is tied to a deeply felt allegiance. It can be a lost love, a frequent trope used by Harlan Coben; but it can be a family member or a fallen friend. I think that’s why my favorite Lee Child book is The Enemy, because it concerns Jack Reacher’s family. Even if it’s a save-the-world type situation, it also needs to have a personal tie for the main character.

There need to be twists. The twists should be spaced through the book, but it’s good if there’s one toward the end where a previously unsuspected character turns out to be bad. Jeffrey Deaver and Harlan Coben are especially good at this. For a really recent example, check out Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.

There should be an unsolvable problem. Obviously, there is a solution, but it must seem as though there isn’t one, and that even more importantly, the problem won’t be solved in time. That adds to the suspense.

A good extra can be romance, though it’s optional. One of my favorite guilty pleasure suspense writers, Michael Palmer, often uses romance to good effect, where the two characters who fall in love end up working as partners to solve the crime.

One of the most important aspects is specificity. This is what separates the really good thrillers from the so-so ones. The specifics of something need to be a part of the story – it makes the whole story more resonant and more engaging and simply, better. This is one reason Dick Francis’ books set in the world of horses – which work as pure thrillers – are so great. The horses are specific. It’s good if the specific thing spotlights something you haven’t known about before. A good example is Steve Hamilton’s The Lock Artist, where, along with a great story, you learn what it’s like to crack a safe. Patricia Cornwell’s breakthrough – often imitated – was setting her thrillers inside the coroner’s office. She took the medical thriller and combined it with the old fashioned evidence based detection story invented by Doyle to come up with something really different.

And very, very importantly, there’s PACE. A poorly paced story is just a bad book, it’s not a thriller. A good story has a rhythm, with the action almost coming in waves, and it’s better if the waves of action are sometimes unexpected. And finally, a concise definition of thrillers – from no less than Laura Lippman: “I define thrillers as race-against-time books in which the story is driven by the reader’s more omniscient view of events.”

James R. Benn: No Such Thing as Human History

The fictional narrative offers the reader a coherent plot and movement toward resolution within the context of the time period; a reassuring process that lends a familiarity to what might be new territory. Reading historical fiction we are forced to think of the past not as a simply a sequence of large-scale events but rather to understand the patterns, causes and consequences surrounding those events and how they impact characters we have hopefully come to know and care about for better or worse. Intertwining the personal narrative of a fictional protagonist as an actor within the historical context can provide for a powerful historical understanding. We don’t just read about a battle, we feel the weight of a pack digging into a soldier’s sweat-stained back. Historians such as Bruce Catton and Douglas Freeman, among others, have written excellent volumes on the American Civil War, but it is Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage that today still stands as a defining description of what those terrible battles were like.

This approach does have its challenges and pitfalls, because the past itself does not have the same shape or coherence as does the present. The past is filled with countless people, places, and conflicts which we turn into something called history in an attempt to impose order on chaos. As the 19th century historian John Lothrop Motley said:

“There is no such thing as human history. Nothing can be more profoundly, sadly true. The annals of mankind have never been written, never can be written; nor would it be within human capacity to read them if they were written. We have a leaf or two from the great book of human fate as it flutters in the stormwinds ever sweeping the earth. We decipher them was best we can with purblind eyes, and endeavor to learn their mystery as we float along to the abyss; but it is all confused babble, hieroglyphics of which the key is lost.”

If that’s the opinion of a distinguished historian, what are we to make of history? Motley’s point was that modern readers cannot hope to understand the past, the motivations and worldviews of those people who are so profoundly different from us. The historian knows when and upon what ground a battle took place, but historical fiction demands much more – a window into the soul of those who fought, killed, suffered, and died in that battle. The characters, if you will, acting within that historical context. The dominant challenge for me is always to remember that the men and women who grew up in the Depression and went off to war in the 1940s are deeply different people from us. Their environment created them, just as ours created us, and how we view the world and each other. It is not the same world at all.

Their life expectancy was about 53; ours is 79. Their economy ran on agriculture and manufacturing; ours runs on service industries. There was no social security or universal medical care for them; we live with a life-long safety net in comparison. Travel, as we experience, understand and expect it today, was unknown for the vast majority of people (until the war changed all that). A twenty-year-old in 1940 would fully understand Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln, historical figures 70 or 80 years in their past. They would be totally unable to comprehend Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, 70 years in the other direction.

There’s another line of demarcation which separates us. We know what happens next. The Spanish Armada does not invade England; The Union prevails in the American Civil War; The Allies liberate Europe and win the Second World War.

The people who lived through those climactic events did not know how things would end. It seems obvious to us now, but the trick is, to create fictional characters who do not know what the future holds – to portray them on the razor’s edge of time, when defeat and disgrace are as likely as life and a return to normalcy – when the fear of the unknown is as palpable as the fear of whatever obstacle is being faced.

There was one time in my life when I understood what that must have been like for my fictional characters. I began to write my second book the weekend after 9/11. The skies were empty, and I had no idea what was going to happen next. Much like my protagonist thought after Pearl Harbor; an unspeakable event had occurred and there was no blueprint to know where things would take us, no sense of a knowable outcome. I cling to that memory, trying always to imbue my characters with the sense of being adrift in history, as indeed we all are. It is only the absence of major upheavals and catastrophes that allows us to think otherwise, and carry on with our lives. It’s critical that writers cleave to that notion, and keep their characters from a clear-eyed vision of the future. For them, there can only be a “now,” whether that is 1066, 1863 or 1962.

How to accomplish this? For me, research is a total immersion in time and place, whether through reading, walking the ground, listening to music of the day or watching movies my characters would have seen. I fill notebooks with jottings about the people and places in the story until I feel stuffed with facts, possessed with an overload of data that will allow me to envision how my characters would have interacted with their environment on every level; political, physical, emotional, and spiritual. Then I begin to write; and I hardly ever look at those notes again.

That information buildup is there to give me the confidence to write, to construct characters as reliable simulacrums for their times. It’s hard work. As Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said in his essay “History and National Stupidity”:

History is not self-executing. You do not put a coin in the slot and have history come out. For the past is a chaos of events and personalities into which we cannot penetrate. It is beyond retrieval and it is beyond reconstruction.

It’s the novelist’s challenge to prove him wrong about “beyond reconstruction.” Research goes far beyond learning the historical timeline. The historical novelist conveys a sense of the period through small “throw-away” details about clothing, food, transportation, dialect and social customs. Writer Thomas Mallon said it well: “Only through tiny, literal accuracies can the historical novelist achieve the larger truth to which he aspires namely, an overall feeling of authenticity. It is just like Marianne Moore’s famous prescription for the ideal poet. He must stock his imaginary garden with real toads.”

Or, as literary critic Logan Pearsall Smith said:

“What I like in a good author is not what he says but what he whispers.”

We need to whisper the truth of the time in which we write. Too many facts poorly presented can kill a story. Too few, and we may fail to bring alive the characters and their times, leaving the reader with a limp presentation that could take place anywhere, anywhen.

I always thought he was joking, but now I understand what Oscar Wilde meant when he said, “The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.”

David Bell: Bring Her Home

Bring Her HomeIn suspense fiction the setup is crucial, and, as one of its finest practitioners, David Bell knows how to start his tale with a bang big enough to energize the compelling universe that follows. His latest superior work, Bring Her Home, begins with a man rushing into a hospital trying to find his daughter, frantic but at the same time desperately trying to keep himself together in midst of the bureaucratic chaos. While many other suspense writers feature impossibly virtuous supermen or bland mannequins whose features are obscured by a blinding fog of plot, Bell brings a regular but not quotidian protagonist to his tale, a guy thrust into the middle of life and death events way over his head, but who is determined to find justice for those closest to him in the best way he can.

He felt control slipping away as the angry part of him asserted itself, almost like another man who lived inside of him and jumped out in situations like this.

Bell’s central character, Bill Price, had been having a rough time of it even before he hit the hospital. A year and a half ago his wife died in a seemingly random accident, and since then his fifteen-year-old daughter has retreated into the unknown, close-mouthed world of adolescence. When she and best friend Haley disappear and then are found in a city park, one badly beaten and the other dead, he is almost completely consumed by his effort to unravel what happened.

But like so much of modern life, the real question is one of identity, spiraling into smaller and smaller circles—how well do you know your neighbors, your loved ones and ultimately yourself? Are you really aware of who they are, what they do when you’re not with them, what they will they do in the future, and, more, importantly, how you will react when they defy your expectations?

It’s Bell’s sensitivity to character and exploration of the most profound themes of family and personality that give his masterfully intricate plot its heft. It takes real skill to craft the kind of twists and jaw-dropping yet credible turns and reversals that he pulls off, but to make the people propelled through the maelstrom living creations rather than game pieces designed to trick the reader demonstrates a truly rare talent.

Non-series suspense novels are very popular right now, and their advantages are many in that they feature characters that, like most readers, are not at home in the crime-ridden universe they suddenly encounter. Because no character has to survive the book, any one of them can be killed, or indeed, be the killer. It’s not as easy to trick crime fiction aficionados, however, and many of the most popular practitioners resort to highly improbable coincidences, implausible psychology, or even that most overused of devices, the unreliable narrator. But there’s no cheating in David Bell and that’s what makes Bring Her Home and all his other books such satisfyingly compulsive reads. (Jamie)

Michael Connelly: The Late Show

Michael Connelly has seamlessly launched a new character and series, introducing Detective Renee Ballard. Ballard works “The Late Show,” or the overnight shift, and she’s in a bit of purgatory as she’s accused her former boss of sexual harassment. When the charges went nowhere (her old partner didn’t back her up), she was booted to the Late Show, where she catches cases but isn’t able to follow them through to a conclusion. She instead turns them over to the pertinent department – homicide, robbery, etc. She’s feeling the lack of follow-through – she’s not as engaged in her job and her partner, who works the late shift to get home and care for a wife with cancer, doesn’t have the same focus she does.

Connelly sets up the character with several unique details – Ballard, a surfer girl, basically lives in her car with her dog and her surfboards, though she calls her Grandmother’s house (a good two hours away), home. This establishes her as the classic outsider/loner that Connelly so prizes in all of his characters – Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller are both rogue outsiders. The police jargon and detail is also familiar to any reader of the Bosch books, but it’s like Connelly has given himself a re-boot with a new character.

The plot centers on a nightclub shooting with the investigation being run by Ballard’s old boss. Ballard follows up on the death of a waitress who was “collateral damage” and it snags her attention. Her follow through and attention to detail draw her into the case despite the fact that she’s just supposed to turn over anything she finds to the day crew. When Ballard’s former partner is killed, it becomes truly impossible for her to keep away. She’s also following up on the brutal beating of a transvestite hooker which leads her into a very bad situation.

It was at that turn of the plot that I almost gave up on this book. A male writer writing a female character whose career is defined by sexual harassment who then puts this character into a classic type of fem-jep situation has to tread pretty carefully. Thankfully, he does, and quickly moves past this particular plot turn. When I thought about it I thought it made sense for the plot, but I still felt it was unnecessary. However, Connelly’s plotting skills and incredible skill with characters had me quickly flipping pages until the end of the novel – as I do with every Connelly novel. This is a great addition to his body of work.

A few thoughts on Agatha Christie (spoilers included)

Every couple years the “public” rediscovers Agatha. As there’s a new film of Murder on the Orient Express due in the fall, non-crime readers have been looking for that particular book. In general, however, Christie remains our bestselling author as her appeal is timeless. I was thinking about the innovations she brought to crime fiction and thought about her plots, for which she is justly famous.

She came up several tropes that are still in pretty much constant circulation: the narrator is unreliable/the killer (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd); everyone is the killer (Murder on the Orient Express); everyone is killed (And Then There Were None); or someone long dead is found to be unjustly accused, causing an uproar in the present (Murder in Retrospect). Oh, and she also wrote a very early example of psychological suspense, Endless Night (1967). Though Josephine Tey wrote earlier versions of psychological suspense (The Franchise Affair, 1948 and Brat Farrar, 1949) Tey’s clung to some remnants of traditional detection. Christie’s story is so modern it could easily find a market today and it might be written by someone like Ruth Ware or Belinda Bauer (or, earlier, Ruth Rendell).

People dismiss her as “simplistic” or “easy reading” but something as finely tuned and assembled as her stories are is neither. The actions seem to grow organically, one from the next – while some of the situations are indeed fantastic (a poison dart in an airplane, for example) they never seem forced – they seem like a natural part of the plot.

In middle school I read the books one after another and after book 25 or so my dim mind began to perceive how her brilliant one worked and I could begin to figure out where she was headed. She’s always an expert in misdirection – she gets you to focus on one thing, when the thing that’s important may sit quietly in the background and you, as a reader, overlook it.

The other thing Christie did and which has been endlessly imitated is to create Miss Marple. While I am a Poirot fan, he has his ancestors. He didn’t spring out of nowhere. The quietly subversive Miss Marple, however, is another story entirely. Miss Marple makes her first appearance in 1930 (The Murder at the Vicarage), and while Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver appeared slightly earlier (Grey Mask, 1928), the first Miss Silver book is a very far cry from her later incarnation. In the first book Miss Silver is almost a cold and ruthless figure. She only becomes the familiar Miss Silver with the publication of The Case is Closed (1937) when her knitting and innate kindness come to the fore.

Miss Marple, however, springs to life as “fluffy,” the village busybody who nevertheless has a penetrating intelligence (another hallmark of Miss Silver). Both of them are often overlooked and ignored by virtue of their age and their gender. Talk about misdirection – this is as quietly subversive as it gets. While Miss Marple and Miss Silver sit knitting in a corner, they’ve figured everything out. Miss Marple famously compares everyone to the villagers in St. Mary Meade, asserting that people are types and are the same everywhere. This may be Christie’s most radical notion, and the older I get, I can’t disagree with it. Never take Agatha for granted – she’s one step ahead and she’s come up with about every plot. Any reader could do worse than spending the rest of their lives reading and re-reading Agatha Christie.

Tracy Kiely: The Nic & Nigel Books

Murder with a Twist; Killer Cocktail; and A Perfect Manhattan Murder.

Guest reviewer Angel Connors is a teacher in Grass Lake, a book club member, Nancy Drew lover, and avid mystery reader and lover of old movies.

“Only lanky redheads with wicked jaws,” quips Nigel Martini to his bemused wife, Nic. If one wants a delightful summer read and has a fondness for old movies, look no further than Tracy Kiely’s charming homage to The Thin Man. To be honest, Kiely’s books owe more to the screenplays of the classic movie series than Dashiell Hammett’s iconic crime novel that introduces us to Nick and Nora Charles. Instead of a beautiful heiress meeting and falling for a sexy and wisecracking private eye, Kiely presents an attractive NYPD detective at physical rehab falling for a charming albeit quirky wealthy playboy.

The reader must be willing to accept the central conceit that the newly retired and married detective and her (works when he feels like it) husband have unlimited funds, lead a ridiculously glamorous life complete with constant travel, endless cocktails and trip over regular obligatory corpses. There is a lot to swallow here because Nic rarely encounters serious resistance from professional police departments when she presumes to interfere with their investigations. In addition, husband Nigel breezes in and out of crime scenes and five-star hotels dragging their adopted enormous bullmastiff, Skippy (an obvious nod to Nick and Nora’s ever present terrier, Asta) with him even onto the Red Carpet when solving a Hollywood murder.

The first book, Murder with a Twist, centers around Nigel Martini’s wealthy eccentric family in New York and borrows liberally from the film plot of After the Thin Man (1936). The second book, Killer Cocktail, takes place in Hollywood and Kiely effortlessly blends the fictional characters with well-known contemporary Tinseltown elite. The third entry, A Perfect Manhattan Murder, takes Nic and Nigel back to New York into the world of Broadway. The murder plot of this book is probably the strongest of the three, but all three are enjoyable. These mysteries are not horrifically violent thrillers or intense character studies; instead, they are unapologetic escapes that allow us to spend time with sophisticated Nic and Nigel, and lest we forget, Skippy.

Louise Penny: Glass Houses

Forget retirement. Gamache is now head of the ENTIRE Surete. After the events of the last novel, Gamache has taken on corruption on a larger scale – he’s literally moved on from the academy to the world at large. Penny, as always, skillfully layers her story. In this outing, she jumps between Gamache’s testimony at a trial, a murder in Three Pines, and the Surete’s – and Gamache’s – fear of the drug crisis, specifically the opioid epidemic and how best to fight it. While Julia Keller’s new book (Fast Falls the Night) also focuses on the opioid epidemic, she goes for the personal; Penny goes for the epic. Keller’s view is far more pessimistic than Penny’s ultimately optimistic one.

The murder in Three Pines comes after an especially creepy set-up. I think in an alternate universe, Penny might be a writer of gothic ghost stories, as many of her books have that kind of spooky element. In this one, there’s a figure in a black hood and a mask, standing unmoving on the green in Three Pines. He’s very unsettling, refuses to answer questions, and eventually there’s a kind of cone of silence surrounding him – kids no longer play there, there’s no activity of any kind. There’s just a kind of dreadful silence. As in the best ghost stories, you’re more creeped out by what’s in your own imagination than by what’s on the page, though that’s creepy enough.

It turns out the figure is an early incarnation of what in Spain is known as a Cobrador del Frac, a figure who dresses in top hat and tails and follows someone around who owes a debt. They usually pay up, as public shaming is a very powerful tool. The earlier incarnation was simply a “conscience” – they were out for a karmic debt to be paid, so to speak. So of course in Three Pines, everyone is wondering just whose karmic debt needs attention. The question, of course, is answered by a murder, but that’s all I can say without giving away points of this clever plot.

Penny is very concerned in this novel with conscience – there’s even a chapter (chapter 8, as another avid reader pointed out), detailing conscience and how past deeds affect various Three Pines residents. Conscience, and ultimately, justice – whether inside or outside of law – becomes the overriding theme of the book. I think this is a theme that has concerned mystery writers, with its rogue police officers, amateur sleuths, and knitting old ladies, from time immemorial. Would you work outside the set rule of law to do what adheres to the rules – or do what is just? I think we mystery readers know the answer, and mystery writers have been helping us figure it out with their clever, well told stories, from Wilkie Collins on forward.

How great that we as readers also get to enjoy a fabulous story as we ponder right and wrong. To me, that’s what makes mysteries the greatest and most enjoyable of all genres. Louise Penny adds her beautiful words and stories to this canon. The end of the novel, as all Louise Penny novels do, had me dissolved in tears, but a Penny novel offers a good cry. You feel cleansed after reading the book. That explains a great deal of her popularity, I think, but so do Gamache and Three Pines itself. Now to wait a whole other year until the next book…

Julia Keller: Fast Falls the Night

I have a real respect for writers who pull off the feat of condensing a book into the space of a single day. One of my favorite mysteries, Ngaio Marsh’s Night at the Vulcan (1951), takes place in the space of a single night, and while Ms. Keller is far removed from Ms. Marsh in time, theme, setting, and protagonist, they share a knack all good storytellers have. I think it’s a matter of pacing, the right amount of being invested in the characters, and some sort of indefinable magic. Marsh’s stories are lighter and more optimistic than Keller’s, who sets hers in a far more brutal time and place.

It’s sad to think that 21st century West Virginia is more brutal than post-WWII London, where Marsh set her novel, but there it is. Keller’s central character, prosecutor Bell Elkins, is weary: weary of her non-stop job, and weary of the opioid crisis that’s overtaken her little town of Acker’s Gap. As the novel opens, there’s an overdose in a gas station bathroom and things go from bad to worse as overdoses and fatalities pile up, apparently from heroin laced with another, even more deadly, drug.

Balancing theme with narrative impetus – something that’s aided by the short time frame – Keller’s book is never didactic or preachy. She gets her message across just fine by showing, not telling. It’s clear the overtaxed law enforcement, paramedic and medical personnel can’t respond to every crime. They have to overlook the small in favor of the big and as overdoses pile up, it’s all they can do to keep up and simply react.

Keller isn’t a storyteller without complexity, however, and within the pages of this novel are Bell’s character, working relationships, family and romantic life as well as the story of a young officer named Jake. His possible romance, his life and the way he puts the pieces of the drug stories together take on an almost epic turn within the tight confines of this well paced and constructed novel.

There’s a tight balance in this book between message – the opioid crisis, or the “Appalachian Virus”; narrative, and character. Significant events take place in Bell’s life as well as Jake’s but they are wrapped up in the story, and that’s as it should be. Novels are stories: the characters keep us invested, the prose speaks to our hearts, and the situation (in this case) breaks them. I’ve loved all of Ms. Keller’s books, but brutal as this one is, it is probably my favorite, a true achievement of style and substance.

Fred Vargas: A Climate of Fear

Fred Vargas is an interesting combination of very traditional and very – untraditional. Her set-up is traditional – Parisian Commissaire Adamsberg has a homicide squad that breaks down in traditional police novel form, with each character in the squad adding something to the story. But Adamsberg himself is extremely untraditional, with deductive methods that border on magical realism. In this novel, the story opens with an elderly woman struggling to the mailbox to mail a letter. Alas, she collapses before she can mail it, but a good Samaritan who helped her until an ambulance arrives later finds the letter in her pocket and mails it.

“Adamsberg put down his fork with care, acting cautiously as he did whenever a barely formed idea, the embryo of an idea, a tadpole of an idea, began slowly swimming up to the surface of his consciousness. At moments like this, he knew, you should not make a sound, because a tadpole will take fright and dive down to disappear forever.” A Climate of Fear, Fred Vargas

A few days later the good Samaritan reads in the paper that the elderly woman has died and she’s disturbed enough to go and tell the police that she’s mailed the letter. The police, especially Adamsberg, aren’t quite convinced that the woman’s death is the suicide it appears to be, especially as they find a curious symbol written near the body, so they seize on the clue offered them by the woman, who remembers the address on the letter. As more bodies begin to appear with the same symbol written nearby, the case of the apparent suicide turns into a full-fledged murder investigation.

There are two threads to the story – an expedition to Iceland several years back which went horribly wrong – and the discovery of a Society for Robespierre, where the hundreds of members dress in revolutionary garb and recreate the speeches of the time. Adamsberg’s investigation style is not linear. He’s guided by feelings, small signs and his reading of human nature as he attempts to untangle what he thinks of to himself as a giant piece of seaweed with many tangled threads.

His squad are frequently confused by his investigative style but go along with is it as he gets results. The case takes him to the French countryside (where he meets, among others, an old lady who smokes a pipe and lives with a wild boar), Iceland, and deep into the Robespierre group as the police interview many of the members who all assume the personalities of the particular historical figure they portray. As an interesting aside, the members of the society are made to change parties now and then so they don’t become entrenched in their viewpoints – not a bad idea, it seems to me.

While this meticulous plot requires a great deal of set-up, the pay-off is well worth it, with the complex threads tying together nicely at the end. While the writing is lovely, I think the main joy of this particular series is Commissaire Adamsberg – a quirky, original mind who works in mysterious ways.