Wednesday, August 16, 2017

It’s a Mystery

Mystery novels are not my default fiction genre for reading myself to sleep at night, but they do show up on my end tables occasionally. Last week three were my soporifics. That probably doesn’t sound flattering to the books, but they didn’t last a week precisely because all proved to be good reads.

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Runaway by Peter May (2015)

Runaway is billed as mystery fiction, and it is, but it stretches the definition beyond the usual limits. Veteran Scottish crime fiction author and screenwriter Peter May tells a tale of youthful adventure and late-life remorse – and, of course, murder.  There are no private investigators and no police, except as people to be avoided.

The novel alternates between 1965 and 2015. In 1965 the central character Jack MacKay, upon his expulsion from high school, convinces four of his friends to leave notes for their parents and run off with him from Glasgow to London in a van in order to become a successful band in London – something the author tried himself as a teenager. Along the way, Maurie, one of the runaway friends, insists on picking up his cousin Rachel in Leeds to rescue her from an abusive relationship. Despite one disaster after another, the six make it to London where they fall in with a trendy psychologist who dabbles in LSD, celebrities, and attractive young men. Heartbreak and murder ensue. Three of the original runaways including Jack return to Glasgow feeling beaten and disillusioned.

50 years later, the prime suspect in the 1965 slaying is himself murdered. Maurie, who is terminally ill and barely ambulatory, learns of this and urges a second runaway, this time from offspring and grandchildren. Once again he means to travel from Glasgow to London where two of the original six had stayed behind in ‘65. Jack and Dave need little persuasion. Jack maneuvers his grandson into driving them in a trip that is scarcely less eventful than the first one. There is much unfinished business in London after all these years. The two murders – one a half-century old and one new – are only a part of it, and mostly for Maurie. For the others it’s largely a poignant tale of paths not taken and of choices that still exist.

This finely written novel is not the usual mystery fare, and it likely speaks the most to those old enough to contemplate the consequences of those untaken paths.

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The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler (1949)

After Peter May, it was time for a well-seasoned classic, and it’s hard to get more classic than Raymond Chandler. Philip Marlowe is a century too late to be the prototype pulp detective, but he nonetheless is the archetype; he is everything we still imagine a private detective to be. For those who know the character only from the movies, the portrayal most like the Marlowe of the books is that of Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet (1944). In purely cinematic terms, I like Humphrey Bogart’s Marlowe in The Big Sleep better, but Powell’s is closer to the flavor of the literary character: a world-weary cynical wisecracker who doesn’t take life very seriously, yet chooses to finish the jobs he takes even when it would be far wiser and safer not to. My pick was The Little Sister, which I hadn’t previously read.

The Little Sister is the fifth of the seven Marlowe novels and the last from the decade in which the character is most at home. By 1949 several of Chandler’s novels and short stories had been adapted to the screen and he had written a few screenplays of his own including The Blue Dahlia and Double Indemnity. Chandler had had a mouthful of Hollywood and he didn’t much like the taste. (See Writers in Hollywood, an article he wrote for The Atlantic in 1945 in which he explains why; multiply all his $ figures by about 20 to adjust for inflation.) He brings his insider knowledge and perspective to this novel, which features second tier actors, producers, and agents along with the criminals, lowlifes, and drug dealers interacting with them. The novel is worth the price just for the glimpse of 1940s Los Angeles.

The action begins when the interestingly named Orfamay Quest, an apparently uptight and naïve young woman from Manhattan Kansas, walks into Marlowe’s office and asks him to find her brother Orrin, who is missing. She doesn’t want to involve the police in case he has fallen in with a bad crowd and the police might cause him trouble. Orfamay is not quite what she seems to be, however, even though "nobody ever looked less like Lady Macbeth." Orrin and Orfamay, it soon turns out, are half-siblings of B-actress Mavis Weld who has a real chance of becoming an A-actress. Mavis is also the girlfriend of a semi-retired gangster named Steelgrave on whom the cops would love to pin something. Several seemingly unconnected threads involving photos, blackmail, greed, an old unsolved murder, drugs, film studio politics, and scorned affections intertwine. Bodies pile up from ice picks and bullets. Even more than usual, Marlowe is loose with the law, thereby annoying the police who are alternately sadistic and kind – frequently in the same encounter.

Chandler always writes very well and he often is funny even as he conveys the mood he wants: “I smelled Los Angeles before I got to it. It smelled old and stale like a living room that had been closed too long.” Or, “Down at the drugstore lunch counter I had time to inhale two cups of coffee and a melted cheese sandwich with two slivers of ersatz bacon in it, like dead fish in the silt at the bottom of a drained pool.” Yum. The Little Sister is another solid entry in the Chandler bibliography. Definitely recommended.

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The State Counsellor by Boris Akunin (2000 – trans. 2008)

Anyone who is a fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes but hasn’t read Boris Akunin needs to start right now. Holmes’ contemporary Erast Fandorin first appeared in print as a 20-year-old neophyte detective in The Winter Queen, a tale set in 1876. The State Counsellor, the sixth Fandorin mystery begins in 1891.

General Krapov is secretly traveling by train from St. Petersburg to a post in Siberia, where he being sidelined for a while due to bad publicity from an incident with a female prisoner. Fandorin is responsible for Krapov’s safety during the stopover in Moscow, though the responsibility doesn’t come with adequate authority. Neither the police nor the security service are specifically under his direction and the two agencies are virtually at war with each other. Someone impersonating Fandorin boards the train before it reaches Moscow, assassinates Krapov, and escapes. Fandorin is arrested for this but is quickly released thanks to the witnesses on the train. But who leaked the information about the “secret” trip and to what killer or killers?

The reader learns the answer to the second part of that question right away. In fact, the book alternates between the perspective of Fandorin, and that of Green, the leader of the revolutionary Combat Group. We learn of the pogrom that turned him into what he is. The Combat Group throws bombs at the elites, robs banks, and commits political murders to further its purposes. We see things from the points of view of the nobility, the underclass, those in between, and the insurrectionists. Meanwhile there are personal intrigues, double agents, professional infighting, and femmes fatales. Fandorin’s job is to solve a crime, but the crime can’t be separated from the social context. Knowing what we know about Russia’s fateful upcoming 20th century adds a deep portent to all the goings-on.

Andrew Bromfield’s translation is clear and readable. That’s all one really can ask.

If you’re already an Akunin fan, this will keep you one. If you aren’t one yet, pick up The Winter Queen. You’re likely then to seek out The State Counsellor.

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Trailer for Murder, My Sweet (1944). Except, strangely, for the title (changed from Farewell, My Lovely), this is the truest to the spirit of a Chandler novel of any film adaptation to date.


  1. I've got Little Sister here and been meaning to read it. Generally I like mystery or crime novels. I'd not heard of The Winter Queen, but I'd probably enjoy it too. They all sounded like good reads.

    1. They are all enjoyable. I always feel I'm cheating when reading a book in translation though. You never know if you're missing something stylistically. Sometimes it's the best one can do. The only language I can read other than English (though I'm very rusty) is Latin, and the ancient Romans weren't big on detective stories. Lindsey Davis writes some very fun detective fiction set in first century Rome, however. If you haven't given her a try but think you might, start with "The Silver Pigs."

  2. I love reading those noire novels from Chandler and his contemporaries. The writing style is so crisp and engaging. I read "The Big Sleep" last year and since i had never seen the film, I was just blown away by it. A great read and much more disturbing than I anticipated.

    1. All eras produce copious trash in popular culture, of course, but the best of the noir era is very good indeed by any standard. I'm also a fan of Jim Thompson who had a solid handle on the details of lowlife by lowlifes. His books generally resist movie adaptation since so much of them occur in characters' minds, though "The Grifters" wasn't bad. There have been three attempts at adapting "The Killer inside Me" though, and none has done it justice.