AN UNKINDNESS OF RAVENS by Ruth Rendell
Fawcett (September 12, 1986), 352 pages
This is the 13th Inspector Wexford adventure, who with his side-kick Inspector Mike Burden, solves crimes – usually murders – and keeps the citizenry of Sussex, England safe and sound. Although these books are murder mysteries at their core, the author excels - and where she differentiates herself from the “pack” - in painting psychological dramas. The term thriller is a bit overblown, as Rendell’s tales proceed much too slowly for that label. (Not a knock just a description, and enjoyment of this series will depend on a reader’s preference, i.e. adrenaline drenched action versus the cerebral/analytic approach utilized by Wexford/Rendell.)
The author’s books are very reminiscent of the Adam Dalgliesh series by P.D. James – I understand the two authors are buddies – and Rendell has influenced the likes of Minette Walters. Rendell blurs the line between victims and villains, and has an uncanny ability to populate her stories with very real, but also very unpleasant/unlikeable characters. Our two heroes, Wexford and Burden, wade through the damaged psyches of their suspects to solve the crimes, piecing together past history and motives, rather than uncovering inanimate clues, i.e. connecting the dots of fingerprints, ballistics and DNA. And there’s usually a Wexford/Burden personal situation, which one or both of our protagonists is wrestling with while pursuing their police work.
An Unkindness Of Ravens follows this formula when a neighbor of Wexford’s - a “family man” - disappears. Reluctantly our hero begins to investigate – a simple missing person case not being part of his job description nor his preference. Over the ensuing months – the case drags on that long - he uncovers a very tangled web indeed; interviewing and re-interviewing concerned parties, all of whom are more than a little annoying i.e. self-centered, overly-dramatic and/or sullen. In the background side-kick Inspector Burden and his new wife are expecting their first-born – a first class soap-opera in and of itself – and the point of which I missed.
When all is said and done – with a lot more of the former versus the latter - Wexford solves the mystery and Burden becomes a new daddy. I don’t mean to sound overly-critical, but this tale drags on and on – even more so than the past books. Not a bad Wexford addition, just by no means the best.
NEMESIS by Jo Nesbo
Harper; (January 6, 2009), 480 pages
Nemesis is the second translated adventure of Police Detective Harry Hole, but the fourth overall – the books and author are Norwegian. Harry borders on the stereotypical fictional detective – a loner with a huge drinking problem; jaded, cynical, but persistent with his own moral code; and he has some issues with authority, although he does get along with his boss. It’s a credit to the author that Detective Hole doesn’t come across as simply one-dimensional. Harry reminds me of both Arkady Renko and John Rebus, which if you are familiar with those two characters, is somewhat of a contradiction, although both are brooders, and at least for this reader Harry’s split personality can be disconcerting, i.e. passive vs. aggressive, physical vs. intellectual. Nesbo’s books, are long, rambling tales, and at times overly-complicated, but on the whole engaging and entertaining.
Nemesis opens with an extremely proficient bank robbery, conducted by a very competent criminal, who cold bloodedly shoots and kills one of the bank’s employees. Harry, paired with a new, (and interesting), partner, finds himself first on the periphery, and then running his own independent investigation of the crime. In parallel, one of Harry’s old flames is found dead in her apartment and Harry becomes centrally involved in that case also – even though the “solution” appears to well in hand. On the side, our hero is also still investigating the murder of his former police partner – which transpired in Redbreast.
That’s just an outline – To add to the mix, during Harry’s sleuthing he “partners” with a mastermind Gypsy crime boss – who may or may not be trustworthy - stumbles through his deceased ex-lover’s very active romantic life and complicated family history; “competes’ with a narcissistic peer in the police department; mentors his new young partner; makes a trip to South America; wrestles with his drinking; and attempts to provide emotional support – via the phone - to his current girlfriend and her son, who are in Russia dealing with legal problems there. There’s also a lurking unknown nemesis, introduced in Redbreast, whom Harry knows is out there wreaking havoc - but is unable to identify, let alone apprehend..
All of that should give you a flavor for the “complexities” of Nemesis or at least highlight the numerous sub-plots. There’s always something going on in Nesbo’s books, which at times can be too much, with Harry running willy-nilly across the pages and through the chapters – begging for a little more focus – or at least a time-out – allowing both Harry and the reader to catch their breath and collect their wits. I enjoyed Nemesis, but similar to Redbreast, I found it at times, over the top and overly-complicated.
THE CONFESSION by Olen Steinhauer
Minotaur Books; (March 10, 2005), 336 pages
The Confession is the second book in the author’s series of life behind the Iron Curtain. Taking place in a nameless Eastern European country, the series’ stars are the men of a state militia police force – all of whom wrestle to some degree with their jobs and their conscience. This book’s protagonist is Ferenc Kolyeszar, a homicide detective and part-time writer, and who played a minor role in the series’ previous entry, The Bridge of Sighs. These books are part mystery, part police procedural and part a narrative of the oppression and machinations under a communist regime – all somewhat reminiscent of the Arkady Renko series by Martin Cruz Smith. Although these books are extremely well-written – particularly in painting “scenes” – I find the characters and the story-lines/plots missing a spark – being both predictable and somewhat stale.
This book opens in 1956 with cracks developing in the Iron Curtain – specifically the uprising in Hungary and the release of dissidents from the communist work camps/prisons. With all this “change” in the air, life still goes on for our police force and our hero, Ferenc. Back at the station house he is tasked with “solving” both the disappearance of the young wife of a Party member, and the apparent suicide of a has-been member of the underground art world. To add to the mix, an emissary from Moscow shows up to keep an eye on Ferenc and his peers, providing “direction” when necessary when dealing with the inevitable protests from the “crack” in the curtain mentioned above. This “from the top” presence only adding one more level of paranoia to the police department’s day to day existence. In the not so distant background Ferenc is also wrestling with his all but failed marriage.
Our hero is personally involved in all of the above – at times acting as judge, jury and executioner – all the while looking over his shoulder. There is a lot of the proverbial spaghetti thrown at the wall here - with a multitude of sub-plots, twists and turns – and although some of it sticks to the wall, it also dries quickly. As stated the descriptive writing is excellent; the author brilliantly portraying the dismal existence inside of prison camps, the terror of being called in for “questioning” by the authorities, and even the underground art world party scene. Unfortunately I was disappointed with both the lack of depth of the characters and the predictable story-line – which all conveniently ties together at the conclusion. As wonderful as the attention to detail is – this is still a story we’ve seen/read many times before. (While reading The Confession and Bridge Of Sighs I couldn’t help but make the comparison of witnessing a talented movie director working with a mediocre script.)
Good but not great.
FAREWELL, MY LOVELY by Raymond Chandler
Vintage (July 12, 1988), 292 pages, originally published 1940
In this his second adventure, private detective Philip Marlowe – more or less in between cases – pokes his inquisitive nose where it doesn’t belong. Encountering a behemoth of an ex-con, Moose Malloy, on the street, Marlowe follows the big man into a bar and witnesses a murder. And before the reader can ask, “Where’s my Velma?” – the question makes sense when you read the novel – Marlowe finds himself embroiled in police corruption, a blackmail scam, chasing a gang of jewelry thieves, another murder and encounters a young female who becomes his pseudo-partner, meets up with a psychic con-man and a crooked doctor and is propositioned by beautiful young woman who is married to a much older and very wealthy man. All the while Marlowe attempts to keep tabs on Moose.
If possible the plot/story-line of Farewell, My Lovely is even more convoluted than its predecessor, The Big Sleep. Marlowe meeting new players with each twist and turn of the investigation and getting physically bounced around on a regular basis. (For the politically correct there are a handful of racial slurs here which may make the reader cringe.) But somehow the author ties it all together in the end with maybe a not so neat bow.
This being a Chandler novel there are plenty of classic “Marlowe-isms”. After being called to a rich client’s home, where “the carpeting almost tickled his ankles”, he describes the den he is escorted into as “a room where anything could happen, except work.”
When embarking on a night’s work he makes the observation, “I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance. I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun.”
Ahhhh – to be Philip Marlowe.