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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The Terra-Cotta Dog, Andrea Camilleri

On a related note, I’ve received a copy of The Hunger Games care of the wonderful folks at Gathering Books Blog. Thank you guys, so much! I’ll try to take a photo of it using my crappy phone. This Camilleri book was actually read for the Whodunit Reading Challenge but I didn’t manage to write a review for it in time because, well, I’m me.

Bodies pile up fast and easy in Andrea Camilleri’s The Terra Cotta Dog but I understand why readers would consider the series to be on the lighter end of the mystery spectrum, straddling the genres of cozy and the grittier police procedural. For one thing, Inspector Salvo Montalbano thinks more deeply about about literature and anchovy dishes than the criminals he has to deal with in his hometown of Vigata, a fictional town situated in Sicily. The story is also bouyed by the humor, often derived from Montalbano’s filthy wisecracks at the expense of his friends and co-workers.

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Through a Glass, Darkly by Donna Leon

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.

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Murder on the Orient Express

When Agatha Christie brings her A game, I get why she is considered the grand doyenne of Golden Age Mystery. There’s a tone of great assurance in her stories, no sense of hurry as the crime and cast of characters are paraded in front of the readers. Detective Hercule Poirot, one of her two iconic detectives, is unruffled at all times, a seemingly buffoonish old man with the uncanny ability to make suspects buckle under scrutiny. Although her works courted controversy in her time, Christie never used gore or on-page violence. There were, after all, Post-Victorian sensibilities to consider.

Murder on the Orient Express creates the template for a very particular puzzle: the alibi conundrum. Poirot is on board the famed Orient Express for a trans-continental trip when a heavy snowstorm leaves the train stranded in the middle of the Balkans. The grave inconvenience takes on a more grisly dimension when an American millionaire named Ratchett is discovered stabbed to death in his cabin.

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The Collaborator of Bethlehem (And Thoughts on the Detective Story)

Few detective novels have managed to elicit a profoundly emotional response from me the way The Collaborator of Bethlehem had. For his debut novel, Matt Beynon Rees plumbs the depths of his experience as Time Magazine‘s former Israel bureau chief to create a compelling mystery set within the context of an extremely polarizing Israel/Palestine conflict. This unflinching but compassionate portrait of life in the West Bank gives readers who are only familiar with the region through pithy CNN headlines a deeper understanding of the people who continue to live in it and the conflicting forces that affect their lives.

At the heart of the story is Omar Yussef, and aging, ornery teacher at a UN Refugee School. He takes pride in his role as an educator, promoting intellectual curiosity and integrity as a defense against a world quickly spinning out of control. When a beloved friend and student, a Palestinian Christian named George Saba, becomes a scapegoat in the murder of a resistance leader, Omar Yussef risks his life to clear his name. He is then forced to confront the ugly realities that plague Palestine of recent memory: It has become a place where upright men suffer and justice takes a backseat to warmongering.

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Half Moon Street

I admit that a big part of why I picked up this Anne Perry book comes from my curiosity about the author. The writer formerly known as Juliet Hulme has the distinction few crime writers can ever claim–being a convicted murderer. The incident, which became the basis for the 1994 movie Heavenly Creatures, is well-documented and I won’t get into the details any further. Sufficed to say, it’s sordid enough to keep me completely fascinated.

My impulse-buy at Booksale also led me to consider an issue I’ve been contemplating since joining two Crime/Mystery themed reading challenges this year. Because novels with a detective or police officer as a lead are often turned into a mystery series, I’ve always been ambivalent about whether I should always start from the very beginning or allow myself to dive into a series midstream.

Half Moon Street is an interesting title to consider with this in mind. It is the 20th book in the Charlotte and Thomas Pitt Series, about a police superintendent and his wife who solve crimes together in Victorian-era London. The thing is, Charlotte Pitt is totally absent from this story save for a few letters. Being a first time reader, I don’t know what exactly I’m missing, but the constant mention of a character that doesn’t actually grace the page is disconcerting. Despite this, however, I found several things to enjoy about the story.

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The Shape of Water

I first encountered Andrea Camilleri’s name while reading through Detective Beyond Borders, a blog that showcases crime fiction from around the world. Finding the copy of The Shape of Water from Booksale gave me such a thrill, and I’m glad to say this book didn’t disappoint at all.

The leisurely first chapter sets the tone of the story, with two garbage collectors performing their early morning jobs in the Sicilian town of Vigata. Their discovery of a corpse at “The Pasture” (a notorious spot of land where prostitutes and drug dealers congregate) brings them much grief, especially when they find out that the corpse is that of Engineer Luparello, an important politician. Inspector Montalbano is inevitably called into the crime scene, and immediately suspects that there is more to the story than a simple case of dying in flagrante delicto. He doggedly pursues his investigations–using unconventional and often comical methods to wring out the truth from those involved–despite pressures from political leaders to close the case quickly.

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