Sunday sleuth

November 8, 2009

I have a new fictional sleuth that I like very much. Her name is Flavia de Luce, she’s an amateur chemist, and she’s eleven years old. In inter-war Britain, she keeps her head about her when a dead body is found in the cucumber patch. She’s the undisputed star of Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, which is very, very accomplished for a first novel. Flavia has charisma and a voice, which is pretty much all you need to sustain an at least readable mystery series. Heck, some people manage to crank out a dozen whodunits without crafting a remotely interesting or sympathetic protagonist.

I must note that Bradley falls into a very common trap for mystery authors in that, when the culprit is revealed, the air goes out of the narrative. Bradley resorts to fairly standard time-wasting tactics that allow Flavia time to run through the hows and whys of the crime, and I found myself growing increasingly impatient during that stretch. This failing is in no way specific to Bradley, and I’m having trouble thinking of more than a handful authors that evade it with regularity. Elizabeth Peters comes to mind, but she has an ensemble of quirky talkers in her Amelia Peabody novels, and I find that she never tries my patience with drawn-out, sleuth-in-peril vamping.

Still, Flavia, with her fascination with poisons and impatience with adult condescension, seems like she has real staying power. She could probably use an entourage of her own, as with Peabody, but she seems able to do a lot of heavy lifting on her own.

More vacation reading

June 4, 2009

A few more items from my recent travels that didn’t quite fit into the Flipped purview:

ppzPride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance – Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem! by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith, Chronicle Books. As the blurb claims, “Complete with romance, heartbreak, swordfights, cannibalism, and thousands of rotting corpses, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies transforms a masterpiece of world literature into something you’d actually want to read.” I’m not sure if Jane Austen really benefits from the addition of zombies to her prose (unless they’re mall zombies), but zombie stories sure benefit from the presence of Miss Bennett and Mister Darcy. The insertion of “the unmentionables” is definitely good for a few fresh chuckles, and the fusion is surprisingly fluid. It’s also great airplane reading; I’m the kind of person who likes to unnerve my seatmates with intermittent giggling. The joke doesn’t get stale by book’s end, but if Grahame-Smith envisions a franchise, he should probably pace himself.

borderlineBorderline, by Nevada Barr, Penguin Group. Perhaps it’s morbid of me or reflects some unflattering impulse towards vicarious violence, but I think any trip to a national park benefits from bringing along a murder mystery set in a national park. Barr’s intrepid heroine, law enforcement ranger Anna Pigeon, is actually visiting Big Bend National Park in Texas as a tourist. Her last adventure has left her on the verge of post-traumatic stress disorder (and on administrative leave), so her kindly husband decides a rafting trip would be an ideal distraction. The trip turns disastrous and deadly in short order, and Anna must face a hostile environment, untangle political complications, and confront her never-before-in-evidence maternal side (unless wolf pups count). As usual, the details of the story are much less important than Barr’s gift for communicating glorious settings. Equally important is her portrayal of Anna, almost as antisocial and sometimes as feral as the predators who roam the far corners of her beloved parks. She’s more than a match for the human predators who sully those parks with greed and violence. Aside from the settings, I think the thing I like best about this series is that Anna’s career as a ranger is the second act of her life, not a from-birth calling; there’s something deeply satisfying about a character finding that satisfaction later than you might expect, but still basking in it.

eternalsmileThe Eternal Smile, by Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim, First Second. For me, this perfectly pleasant collection of thematically linked short stories suffered in the shadow of high expectations. Yang’s American Born Chinese and Kim’s Same Difference and Other Stories are terrific, terrific graphic novels, so the prospect of a collaboration between their creators left me anticipating a result that could heal minor ailments and spin gold from straw. The actual result offers three tales exploring fantasy’s shortcomings as an alternative to the real world. There’s nothing bad about any of them, though they feel a bit pat and maybe even a bit preachy at times. It’s a distinct pleasure seeing Kim demonstrate his versatility as an illustrator, though.

Sad news

October 27, 2008

This news makes me very sad. I’ve always liked Hillerman’s novels, solid mysteries set in one of my favorite parts of the world (the Southwest), and I think the Times does a good job summarizing his appeal and impact:

“Mr. Hillerman’s evocative novels, which describe people struggling to maintain ancient traditions in the modern world, touched millions of readers, who made them best sellers. But although the themes of his books were not overtly political, he wrote with a purpose, he often said, and that purpose was to instill in his readers a respect for Indian culture. The plots of his stories, while steeped in contemporary crime and its consequences, were invariably instructive about ancient tribal beliefs and customs, from purification rituals for a soldier returned from a foreign war to incest taboos for a proper clan marriage.”

Easy money

September 11, 2008

Have you ever read a book and thought to yourself, “This would make a pretty cool comic?” I found myself doing that with Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter, which has already been adapted into a television series for Showtime. It’s about a serial killer who solves crimes. And I think we’ve officially maxed out on the careers you can plug into the phrase “(blank) who solves crimes,” which saddens me a little bit, but I’ll soldier on.

Dexter, who works in a Miami crime lab, moonlights as a sociopath who focuses his attention on other sociopaths. Raised (or programmed) by a foster father who also happened to be a police officer, Dexter manages to direct his recreational homicide at deadly creatures like himself. It’s both ridiculous and strangely plausible, and Lindsay has a light, charmingly perverse touch that helps mitigate the flat, stupid bits. (For example, Dexter’s foster sister is an entitled whiner, but Dexter makes enough of a mockery of her relentless, do-gooder brattiness that it’s almost tolerable.)

Dexter is the kind of anti-hero who’s reasonably interesting on his own terms and can function ably as a plot generator. I’ve only been through Miami once, but I can certainly believe it has no shortage of serial killers among its populace. It’s an absurdly scenic, colorful place too, except for the parts that are dynamically ugly, or the parts that are both scenically colorful and dynamically ugly at the same time. Combine the setting with the arresting violence on display, and an able illustrator could have a good time with it.

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of mythos to the books, which suits me fine. I don’t think this kind of pulp benefits too much from world-building and arch-nemeses and self-important clutter that has tripped up other smart splatter-novel series. (I’ve only read the first book and part of the second, so that could change and I could find myself back in the Kay Scarpetta weeds again, but so far, so good.)

So here, to summarize, are the things I think make the book eminently adaptable:

  • A solid premise that’s just stupid enough to catch the eye of a casual reader
  • Visual opportunities for an illustrator who likes the tropics and dismemberment
  • A morally ambiguous protagonist, something comics love
  • A kind of purist-resistant uncomplicatedness that lends itself to adaptation in other media (though I know purists of every stripe are not to be underestimated)
  • Having Random House as a publisher, since they’re already developing comics adaptation properties
  • Dexter actually sounds more Dark Horse to me, but maybe Del Rey could partner with them or something.

    Misplaced weekend

    April 21, 2008

    This is almost entirely unrelated to anything in terms of comics, but I really feel the need to convince myself that I didn’t waste the entire weekend playing Westward II. I wasted a lot of it, but I didn’t waste all of it:

    1. Mowed lawn, or more accurately, mowed onion field masquerading as lawn.
    2. Clipped male dog’s toenails without incident or injury.
    3. Cleaned stove top.
    4. Went to Lowe’s without excessive eye-rolling.
    5. Went to supermarket without strangling any of my fellow patrons.
    6. Read The Blueberry Muffin Murder by Joanne Fluke, which was pleasant and competent and contained cookie recipes, though none of them sounded life-changing. (Minor grumble: I’m always disappointed when a writer hints at a mysterious relationship between people of the same sex, then it turns out to be the most un-sexy relationship possible.)
    7. Read the preview of Matthew Loux’s Salt Water Taffy that Oni sent me, and wow, is that a good comic. More on that subject later.

    Okay, I guess it wasn’t a total loss.

    Death in the stacks

    March 25, 2007

    I was at the library the other day, and I noticed that some thoughtful employee had posted a short list of mystery series recommendations. This person is clearly my long-lost book twin, because the sleuth categories included chefs, pet owners and librarians. (There was no category for gay sleuths, but I’ll let it slide.)

    Being in a Dewey Decimal kind of place and riding a wave of library love, I opted for Charlaine Harris’s Last Scene Alive, starring small-town librarian Aurora Teagarden. While the book has a lot of promising elements – a generally anti-social heroine, the promise of a gossipy community setting, and the opportunity to see a librarian apply her considerable intellect and organizational skills to violent crime – they didn’t really come together for me.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Weekend update

    March 4, 2007

    Barnes & Noble was mobbed yesterday, which I found strangely reassuring. I don’t like wading through crowds to get to the cash register, but I do like to see people buying books, and they were buying lots of them. There were no children sprawled on the floor in the manga section; they were all clustered over in the game guides.

    And those new collections of the Love & Rockets stories were there, and they are indeed quite handsome and a crazy value at $14.95. I went with Heartbreak Soup to start. I thought about getting both, but To Terra… beckoned.

    We watched For Your Consideration yesterday. I always like Christopher Guest’s movies, and this one was no exception, but I’m glad we waited for it to come out on DVD instead of seeing it in a movie theatre. It just didn’t seem up to the standard of the others. The only really uproarious parts came from Jane Lynch playing, as near as I could figure, the reanimated corpse of Mary Hart. She was awesome.

    And I’ve really got to break the habit of finding an author I really like and obsessively reading everything they’ve written to date. I should pace myself, or I’ll quickly run out of Nevada Barr novels to read. But they’re grisly mysteries set in national parks with a surly but likable woman of a certain age as protagonist! How can I resist? Ill Wind has the unfortunate side effect of making me want to be in the Southwest a whole lot.


    January 18, 2007

    I always like it when my pet interests intersect. Lately I’ve been running through the library’s selection of audio books by Nevada Barr, which allows me to indulge in reasonably well-written mysteries, National Park settings, and readings by Barbara Rosenblat all at the same time.

    National Parks are some of my favorite places on Earth (particularly Zion in southern Utah), and Barr does a nice job evoking the settings and their majestic qualities without descending too deep into purple prose. As an added benefit, I haven’t yet been to any of the parks she’s used as a setting in the books I’ve listened to (Yosemite, Rocky Mountain and Dry Tortugas), so it’s like getting a preview. (I’m assuming any trip I make to these destinations won’t include the quantity of violent mayhem ranger-sleuth Anna Pigeon encounters.)

    Pigeon is a very solid protagonist. She’s tough and intelligent, but not to any super-heroic degree. Barr is fairly generous in sharing Pigeon’s process of deduction, which allows the reader to play along. And since that process generally consists of rumination and speculation instead of lab results and Internet searches, the reader gets to know her pretty well. I like that she’s a little antisocial, preferring the quiet, natural spaces to developed, populated ones. I like that she’s older, too, and that she relies on experience as much as instinct.

    I’m not crazy about some of the protracted, violent set pieces that Barr inserts in her novels. They verge on sadism, and while none of the events described are particularly outlandish (at least in the context of the stories), they are outlined in what strikes me as needless detail. And the length of them tends to undermine the suspense generated. I understand the need to put a protagonist in peril, but Barr sometimes crosses the line from scary into icky.

    I always enjoy Rosenblat’s readings. Her best work is in the Amelia Peabody books by Elizabeth Peters, but her other performances are solid as well. (It’s not her fault that I want to strangle Goldy Schulz, and I often suspect that Rosenblat shares my point of view.)