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.
Donna Leon writes lushly about a Venice in regal decay, with the urbane and likable Commissario Guido Brunetti as her main character, yet it was not until 158 pages in (halfway through the novel) that the crime the good detective was supposed to investigate even occurred. This, I think, encapsulates everything I found frustrating about Through a Glass, Darkly.
Familial strife and the power play inside a community of Murano glass-blowers become the springboard for Leon’s novel, which shines a light on industrial pollution and the danger it poses to Venetian waters. Brunetti helps out environmental activist Marco Ribetti as a favor to a friend, but he is eventually drawn into Ribetti’s conflict with his own father-in-law, Giovanni De Cal. He is a tyrannical glass factory owner and as Brunetti asks around about him, he eventually learns of De Cal’s shoddy environmental track record and the resentment nursed by some of his own workers. A body eventually crops up in his factory and Brunetti tracks down the different clues left behind by the victim to uncover the killer’s identity.
Let’s talk about the good things first.
State of the Onion is the quick, engaging debut for a mystery series by Julie Hyzy set within the storied walls of the White House kitchen. Assistant Chef Ollie Paras has her eye on the top position since her mentor and boss is preparing to retire. Her quest for a promotion isn’t going to be easy, however, with a celebrity chef as her competition and a new “sensitivity director” looking over her shoulder. On top of that, an intruder at the White House raises everyone’s alarm bells just in time for some highly sensitive trade negotiations. Since this is a cozy mystery, the charmingly nosy Ollie is always in the thick of things–from preparing the banquet in honor of two feuding nations to hitting a potential terrorist in the head with a frying pan.
I blazed through this book in a day and a half, and for the most part enjoyed it. Ollie is ditzy yet headstrong in the way cozy mystery heroines typically are, but her role as a White House chef adds some interest in her characterization. None of the other characters are particularly fleshed out but they serve their purpose just fine and I get the feeling their personalities will be given more depth throughout the series. Plus one for the hilariously entertaining “villains” that put Ollie’s career in jeopardy, minus one for the tiresome and weirdly sanctimonious Secret Service boyfriend.
Literary detectives are different from you and me, those haughty geniuses with photographic memory who navigate a crime scene with laser-like precision. Because they are masters of detection, we the audience are often left scrambling in the dust, unable to make sense of the mystery until the genius detective deigns to explain everything to us. So it’s quite refreshing when I encounter a mystery where the problem-solver is as clueless as the average reader. In fact, Atty. Jack Knox in Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Window at the White Cat is a true bungler, prone to moments of clumsiness and self-injury.
Like many mysteries, this one starts out with a girl. Knox becomes infatuated with Margery Fleming, the distressed daughter of a missing local politician. Unfortunately for him, she’s already engaged–to a possibly sinister young man. Several things end up missing throughout the story, including a set of pearls and a spinster aunt. The mystery takes a nastier turn when a body turns up at the White Cat, a small club where seedy deals are made by politicians all the time.
First of all, I want to say hello to the good folks who wandered to this blog via Filipino Book Bloggers. Having a ready-made directory of book blogs by Filipinos warms my small, bibliophilic heart.
When it comes to reading challenges, I think the word I’m looking for is “masochism.” Aside from the A to Z Challenge I’ve already talked about, I’ve also signed up for two mystery-centric challenges. The first one is the Cruisin’ thru the Cozies Reading Challenge over at Socrates’ Book Reviews. Wikipedia characterizes cozies as “a subgenre of crime fiction in which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humourously.” I have long professed a fondness for Dorothy Sayers and I think this is a great opportunity to branch out on the subgenre.
I have chosen the Level 2 of the challenge, so that means I need to finish 7-12 cozies, I’ll be updating this this tentative list as I progress: