The Likeness by Tana French

(I’m going to discuss this book in ways that will be deemed spoilery, so please be warned if you like going into mystery books with a pristine mind.)

In the beginning of Tana French’s The Likeness, detective Cassie Maddox is nursing a wound from an old undercover case gone horribly wrong. Reassigned to a desk job after her old team imploded, she feels both frustrated and alienated from her career. Going into this second novel in the Dublin Murder Squad series (the first novel is In the Woods), I did not know the particulars of the old case, but it sets up the extent to which Cassie has been emotionally and professionally compromised.

All this was before a corpse that looks exactly like her was found. By the time she agrees to impersonating a dead woman named Lexie and living inside a foreboding house with four murder suspects, you can kind of tell that this new thing is going to mess her up even more. Continue reading

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The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason

Let’s get something out of the way: The Rule of Four by Justin Thomason and Ian Caldwell is pretty much a paint-by-numbers affair as far as intellectual thrillers are concerned. There is, of course, an extremely obscure historical text called the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili that apparently has an arcane code within it, revealing an earth-shaking truth that may rewrite history. There is an obsessive soul, a senior in Princeton named Paul, who becomes so consumed by the mystery that he pushes away the people who love him in his pursuit of it. There is a narrator named Tom who has already watched is his father be consumed by the Hypnerotomachia until his death and is now watching helplessly as the same thing happens to his best friend.

There are also deaths, because people who write their thesis on 15th Century Italian manuscripts live life on the edge.

But for some reason, reading this book pushed so many pleasure centers in my brain in ways that made me forgive the banal writing and even the weird tonal shifts that it takes. When the story is not straining to be suspenseful or shocking, I actually found it kind of comforting. The hermetic setting of the Princeton campus may also have contributed to that, because it evoked associations of Dead Poets’ Society, The Gilmore Girls, and other pop culture things about idyllic schools and youth.

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The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum

I’ve always been fascinated by crime at the beginning of the 20th Century. It was a nebulous time when all the trappings of what we now consider standard police work barely existed. Cities were industrializing at a rapid pace even as local governments struggled to keep up. Jack the Ripper‘s reign of terror over London, for example, only occurred around ten years before the new century began, and investigators then had to pretty much spontaneously invent psychological profiling, crime scene investigation, forensic handwriting analysis, and other fields of criminology. (Warnings for graphic photos and descriptions of dead bodies in those links.)

Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York is a brisk tour of this rough historical period. It also serves as a chronicle of a peculiar arms race between killers looking for the most ingenious methods of offing someone and the forensic investigators determined to catch them. Representing the forces of law and order are two scientists, the medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler of the New York Police Department. Blum expertly paints the frustrating morass of bureaucracy, corruption, and ignorance that technicians like them had to endure in order to establish a more scientific and reliable protocol for catching poisoners. Continue reading

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

(This is to note that my post contains a lot of egregious spoilers. DO NOT READ IF YOU WISH TO READ THE BOOK AND DON’T WANT TO KNOW THE DETAILS OF THE PLOT. Even the second paragraph, which talks about its structure, mentions details that pretty much telegraphs the ending.)

Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None is the one of the most well-executed specimens of the cozy mystery, a singular achievement marred by some hilariously Victorian racism. It would’ve been quaint had it not been so dehumanizing.

This isn’t something that I say purely out of facetiousness, since it is well-documented that the publishers decided to change the novel’s original title and some of its language to omit an egregious and dehumanizing slur. (The rhyme used, for example, had been replaced by an equally egregious but not as censured slur against Native Americans. My copy has the “Ten Little Indians” rhyme, a modification of the original “Ten Little N_____,” but later editions have apparently edited it further into “Ten Little Soldiers.”) I mention this in order to marvel at Christie’s ferocious storytelling ability, yet still acknowledge valid avenues of critique and examination. Continue reading

Blue Angel, White Shadow by Charlson Ong

Nostalgia for a Manila slowly ebbing away lies at the heart of Blue Angel, White Shadow, the newest offering from one of the Philippines’ most renowned novelists, Charlson Ong. With references to Marlene Dietrich, John Coltrane, Old Binondo, World War II, dogfights and summary executions, his foray into the mystery genre results in a symphony about the constant push and pull between the old and the new, the artful and the brutal.

The story begins with an iconic noir image: the beautiful woman in a red dress. Rather than a seductive shift, however, singer Laurice Saldiaga was wearing a red cheongsam when she died in the upstairs apartment of the Blue Angel, a decrepit jazz bar in the middle of Chinatown. A Hokkien-speaking mestizo policeman named Cyrus Ledesma is brought into the investigation because of its delicate nature, even as he comes to terms with his own dodgy past. He encounters a list of people with motives and opportunities to kill Laurice. The implication even goes as high up as the Mayor of Manila himself, Lagdameo Go-Lopez.

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Quick Notes: Ruth Rendell and Mina V. Esguerra

A Guilty Thing Surprised by Ruth Rendell

Despite my fondness for British Golden Age mysteries (Christie, Sayers, Marsh), I have yet to find a more contemporary mystery writer that I really enjoy. To wit, Ruth Rendell is widely regarded as a master of the form, yet this manor mystery about a woman found dead in the woods left me cold (pun not intended). There’s a certain amount of wit that I feel is lacking here, despite erudite nature of the story.

A Guilty Thing Surprised is a novel that features Chief Inspector Wexford and Inspector Burden investigating the murder of Elizabeth Nightingale, the mistress of a manor that only seems genteel on the surface. Suspects immediately crop up as a series of interviews reveal the victim’s manipulative nature. The retiring husband, the worldly au pair, and the professor brother–each one has something to hide. The novel’s title is from a Coleridge poem, alluding to a setting that involves many literary and academic preoccupations.

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The Alienist, Caleb Carr

A couple of pages before finishing The Alienist, I declared that it is the most complete mystery I have ever read. Months after finishing this book, I still don’t think that was hyperbole. Using the milieu of New York City in the middle of the Gilded Age, historian-turned-novelist Caleb Carr pits the emerging phenomenon of the serial killer against the pioneers of what would become criminal profiling in this fascinating example of a historical thriller.

At the center of the story is Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, an engimatic alienist–early word for psychiatrist–who is attempting to solve a series of gruesome murders targeting boy prostitutes in 1896 New York. He faces challenges from all sides: notorious proponents of morality are unwilling to accept the existence of boy prostitutes (or any form of homosexual trade) in the first place, and policemen of the time are violently opposed to any form of scientific inquiry into the criminal mind. With the help of a young, reform-minded Theodore Roosevelt, Kreizler creates a small team of intelligent and determined proto-profilers who gather material and pyschological evidence in order to create the portrait of an urban predator.

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