The Benson Murder Case.

My ranking of the top 50 prospects in this year’s draft class went up on Friday for Insiders; I also held my regular Klawchat on Thursday. My latest boardgame review for Paste covers the excellent baseball-themed deckbuilder Baseball Highlights: 2045.

I don’t know how or when I came across Philo Vance, the crime-solver at the heart of a dozen mysteries written by art critic Willard Huntington Wright under the psuedonym S.S. Van Dine, although I suspect it came about when I was researching J.K. Rowling’s favorite detective novels as she did press around the releases of her two Cormoran Strike books. I grabbed the first Vance novel, The Benson Murder Case, because it’s just $1.99 for the Kindle (and for iBooks too), and at that price it seemed a sure bet to be, as Paddington might put it, very good value. I knocked it out on the flight from Philly to Orlando last month because Van Dine managed to create a ripping dialogue-heavy format, where the brilliant Vance solves the crime in the first chapter via abductive reasoning but waits for the investigating officer to come to the truth via standard deduction (and a lot of dead ends). Vance is maddening in his arrogance and clipped speech, but also very witty and well-suited to a format where the reader is also encouraged in a sense to play along with the lead officer to try to solve the crime.

The Benson Murder Case appears to be very similar to the famous locked-door mysteries of classic fiction; the victim of the book’s title is found shot in his favorite chair, apparently by someone he knew, with no signs of forced entry or any struggle and no direct evidence that anyone else was even in the room. Many people had good, obvious reasons to want him dead, and the lack of evidence pointing to one person being on site effectively opens up the possibility that any of the suspects were there. Vance takes one look at the scene, asks a few questions that don’t even seem to be germane to the crime, and announces shortly thereafter that he’s solved the case – but won’t tell the officer investigating it, stating (correctly, I’d argue) that the detective has to come to the solution himself to believe it, given how much Vance’s own answer relies on logic and how little it depends on physical evidence (which he openly disdains).

Vance’s diction reminded me a bit of Lord Peter Wimsey, the debonair star of eleven novels and a handful of short stories by Dorothy Sayers; Wimsey engages in more direct investigation, but his own peculiar manner of speech contradicts his high birth and education at Eton and Oxford. Wismey’s speech patterns and pronunciation made reading his dialogue unnecessarily difficult, whereas Vance’s is subtle enough that it was more mild annoyance than out-and-out distraction. That allowed me to focus more on trying to backtrace Vance’s thinking, while avoiding straying too far down the path of the obvious (where Van Dine is only too happy to lead you). So while I never went back for more of Sayers’ work (perhaps unfairly so) after reading her first novel, I’ll keep rolling with Vance, especially since the next two novels are available for Kindle at the same price.

I also read Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum recently, a dreadful account of war in China across three generations, told with horrifying detail of the violence perpetrating by the Japanese invaders on Chinese civilians and soldiers, and by Chinese fighters on each other during the same period. One scene depicts the flaying of a Chinese fighter in eerily similar fashion to the flaying scene in Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but Murakami’s works have a breadth of tone and emotion that Red Sorghum lacks. The horrors of war are real, but that doesn’t mean they make for fun reading.

Next up: I’ll review David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas in the next few days, and have just started Orhan Pamuk’s Silent House.

The Silkworm.

J.K. Rowling’s second detective novel starring Cormoran Strike, The Silkworm, continues to establish the detective character as the star of the series – a critical trait in any variation on the hard-boiled theme – while dropping Strike and his assistant, Robin Ellacott, into the world of publishing and avant-garde literature. While the crime and its resolution are just as compelling as that of the first novel in the series, The Cuckoo’s Calling, it’s Strike and Robin who keep the story moving, as Rowling develops each character and explores their professional and personal relationship.

Strike is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who lost one of his lower legs to an IED, born out of wedlock to a groupie of the rock star Jonny Rokeby, with whom Strike has next to no relationship at all, although I get the sense we’ll meet Rokeby in a future book. His foundering private investigation business has received a huge boost after he solved the murder in The Cuckoo’s Calling, which brings Leonora Quine, the wife of the eccentric and would-be transgressive novelist Owen Quine, to his office to track down her missing husband. Of course, Owen’s been murdered, in a grisly fashion that mirrors the concluding scene of his new, unpublished book Bombyx Mori (Latin for “silkworm”). Solving the murder requires Strike and Robin to navigate the huge egos of Quine’s corner of the publishing world while also engaging in the kind of textual analysis you might expect to find in a college literature class. (I would have loved more passages from the fake book, but I’m generally a sucker for metafiction – and it would be fun to see Rowling mock transgressive literature.)

Rowling seems to have had a lot of fun sending up her targets in the worlds of literature and publishing, not least in the character of Quine – a philandering artiste of questionable talent, still living off the reviews of his first novel, published decades earlier, and financial support from his longtime agent, Liz Tassel. Quine’s ability and commercial success both pale compared to those of his rival, Michael Fancourt, who appears to be his own biggest fan and who has some very curious thoughts on literature, art, and love. I don’t recognize any specific targets of these parodies, if that is indeed what they are, and while they’re all entertaining and more than just two-dimensional side characters, they only come to life at all because of how Strike and Robin work them over during their investigation.

In the first novel in the series, Robin came on board as a temp and served primarily as Strike’s admistrative assistant and chief organizer, but we knew then that she had aspirations of joining Cormoran in detective work. She gets more such opportunities in the Quine case, and the result might be The Silkworm‘s greatest strength: Rowling crafts her into a strong, compelling, three-dimensional female co-lead, so while Strike is still front and center, it’ll be hard to imagine him working without her, both because she can do things he can’t (particularly where a more sensitive touch is needed with a witness or suspect) and because he’s coming to depend on her professionally and even emotionally.

That development means that The Silkworm does suffer from some second-novel blues, as Rowling spends time on her two characters on plot threads that aren’t related to the crime (something you’d never find in a classic hard-boiled detective novel) and that don’t lead to any specific resolution or catharsis at the end of the novel. Strike’s relationship with the beautiful but damaged Charlotte, which ended at the start of the first book, takes a few more turns for the worse, while Robin’s relationship with her fiancé Matt hits the skids over her commitment to a job he didn’t want her to keep. Those diversions are still critical to the evolution of Robin’s relationship with Strike, and I can imagine further development in all three relationships (or, in the case of Strike/Charlotte, a relationship that won’t quite end) in future books in the series, but they came across as too tangential to The Silkworm‘s story.

Rowling’s greatest gift as a writer – and I believe she has several – is storycraft, and while The Silkworm isn’t as involved as any of the Harry Potter novels or even The Casual Vacancy, it is tight and gripping and, in hindsight, gives the reader sufficient clues to sniff out the killer, although I was never really sure and ultimately fell for Rowling’s final feint. The investigation is convoluted and nonlinear, with Strike and Robin pursuing multiple leads at once, and Rowling eventually telling us what they’re doing without telling us what they find so she can obscure the killer’s identity until the very end of the book. The emphasis on the process, such as Strike’s advice to Robin before her first attempt to interrogate a witness, added a realistic element to the novel.

The New York Times review of The Silkworm ended with an ambiguous opinion on the novel, that “the most compelling characters are not the killer or the victim, but the detectives charged with solving the crime.” To me, however, that is an unequivocal statement of praise – a great detective novel starts and ends with the detective him- or herself. The story’s the thing in a mystery, although the detective can become part of the appeal in that genre as well, but I enjoy detective novels when I like the detective, whether he’s hard-boiled or sunnyside-up. I’ve always enjoyed Rowling’s voice and ability to craft a story I can’t put down, and now that she’s attached those to a great if unusual detective character, I’m all in.

Next up: Christine Sismondo’s America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops.

Saturday five, #2.

Five books, five links to my own stuff, and five links to others’ articles.

I’ve read eight books since my last post on any of them, so I’m going to take a shortcut and catch up by highlighting the five most interesting. Now that spring training is ending, I hope to get back to regular dishblogging soon.

* Charles Seife’s Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea is the one non-fiction book in this bunch, a history-of-math tome that incorporates a fair amount of philosophy, physics, and religion all in a book that’s under 200 pages and incredibly readable for anyone who’s at least taken high school math. The subject is the number zero, long scorned by philosophers, theologians, and even some mathematicians who resisted the idea of nothing or the void, yet which turned out to be critical in a long list of major scientific advances, including calculus and quantum mechanics. I generally prefer narrative non-fiction, but Zero moves as easily as a math-oriented book can get without that central thread.

* Dashiell Hammett’s Nightmare Town is one of three major Hammett short-story collections in print (along with The Continental Op and the uneven The Big Knockover), and my favorite for its range of subjects and characters without feeling as pulpy as some of his most commercial stories. The twenty stories are all detective stories of one sort or another starring several different Hammett detectives, including early iterations of Sam Spade and the character who eventually became the Thin Man, as well as a western crime story that might be my favorite short piece by Hammett, “The Man Who Killed Dan Odams.”

* Readers have recommended Tim O’Brien’s short story cycle The Things They Carried for several years, usually any time I mention reading another book that deals with the Vietnam War and/or its aftermath. The book, a set of interconnected stories that feels like an novel despite the lack of a central plot, is based heavily on O’Brien’s own experiences in that conflict, especially around death – of platoon mates, of Viet Cong soldiers, of Vietnamese civilians, and of a childhood crush of O’Brien’s who died at age 9 of a brain tumor. The writing is remarkable, more than the stories themselves, which seemed to cover familiar ground in the genre, as well as O’Brien’s ability to weave all of these disconnected stories into one tapestry around that central theme of death and the pointlessness of war. The final story, where he ties much of it together by revisiting one of the first deaths he discussed in the book, is incredibly affecting on two levels as a result of everything that’s come before.

* I’m a big Haruki Murakami fan – and no, I haven’t read 1Q84 yet and won’t until it’s in paperback – but Dance, Dance, Dance was mostly a disappointment despite some superficial entertainment value, enough to at least make it a quick read if not an especially deep one. A sequel of sorts to A Wild Sheep Chase, it attempts to be more expansive than that earlier novel but still feels like unformed Murakami, another look at him as he built up to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a top-ten novel for me that hit on every level. Dance is just too introspective, without enough of Murakami’s sort of magical realism (and little foundation for what magical realism it does contain) and no connection between the reader and the main character.

* I loved Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, a funny, biting satire on upper-class life in the United States just after World War I, so I looked forward to House of Mirth, present on the Modern Library and Bloomsbury 100 lists, expecting more of that sharp wit but receiving, instead, a dry, depressing look at the limitations of life for women in those same social circles prior to the war. It’s a tragedy with an ironic title that follows Lily Bart through her fall from social grace, thanks mostly to the spiteful actions of other women in their closed New York society; it’s a protest novel, and one of the earliest feminist novels I’ve read (preceded, and perhaps inspired, by Kate Chopin’s The Awakening), but I found myself feeling more pity than empathy for Lily as a victim of circumstances, not of her own missteps.

Next up: I’m reading Martin Booth’s A Very Private Gentleman (filmed as The American) and listening to Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works. The Booth book is on sale through that link for $5.60.

Five things I wrote or said this week:

On Jeff Samardzija’s revival.

This week’s chat.

One batch of spring training minor league notes, including the Angels, A’s, Rangers, and Royals.

Tuesday’s “top 10 players for 2017” column, which I emphasized was just for fun and still got people far too riled up. There’s no rational way to predict who the top ten players will be in five years and I won’t pretend I got them right. But it was fun to do.

I interviewed Top Chef winner and sports nut Richard Blais on the Tuesday Baseball Today podcast, in which he talked about what it was like to “choke” (his word) in the finals on his first season and then face the same situation in his second go-round. We also talked about why I should break my ten-year boycott of hot dogs.

And the links…

* The best patent rejection ever, featuring Borat’s, er, swimsuit.

* A spotlight on Massachusetts’ outdated liquor laws. For a state that likes to pretend it’s all progressive, Massachusetts is about thirty years behind the times when it comes to alcohol, to say nothing of how the state’s wholesalers control the trade as tightly as the state liquor board does in Pennsylvania. The bill this editorial discusses would be a small start in breaking apart their oligopoly, but perhaps enough to start to crumble that wall.

* I admit it, I’m linking to Bleacher Report, but Dan Levy’s commentary on how Twitter has affected what a “scoop” means, especially to those of us in the business, is a must read. And there’s no slidshow involved.

* The Glendale mayor who drove the city into a nine-figure debt hole by spending government money to build facilities for private businesses – including the soon-to-be-ex-Phoenix Coyotes – won’t run for a sixth term, yet she’s receiving more accolades than criticism on the way out. Put it this way: Given its schools, safety, and public finances, we never considered Glendale for a second when looking to move out here.

* The “pink slime” controversy has led the manufacturer to suspend production at three of its four plants. That makes for a good headline, but are job losses really relevant to what should be a discussion of whether this is something people, especially schoolchildren, should be consuming? And now the controversy is moving on to carmine dye, derived from an acid extracted from cochineal beetles and used in Starbucks frappuccinos. If nothing else, I applaud the new emphasis on knowing exactly what we’re eating.

The Big Knockover.

Dashiell Hammett is best known today for his signature detective Sam Spade (from The Maltese Falcon) and for the crime-solving duo Nick and Nora (from The Thin Man), but was also a prolific writer of short stories, many of which haven’t been published since their original appearances in pulp magazines like Black Mask. The Big Knockover is one of three major collections of Hammett’s stories currently in print, including nine short stories (two of which together form a sort of two-part novella) and the beginning of an unfinished novel.

That unfinished novel, Tulip, is the star piece in the collection is the least Hammett-like and the least readable. In its fifty-ish pages, making it roughly the length of most of the stories in this book, Hammett speaks to the reader through a character who writes for a living but is caught in a post-midlife introspection that has him questioning his choices in his career, including what I take as a fear of historical obsolescence after the wave of post-modern/realist works that were all the critical rage during Hammett’s own heyday:

“But couldn’t you just write things down the way they happen and let your reader get what he wants out of ’em?”
“Sure, thats’ one way of writing, and if you’re careful enough in not committing yourself you can persuade different readers to see all sorts of different meanings in what you’ve written, since in the end almost anything can be symbolic of anything else, and I’ve read a lot of stuff of that sort and liked it, but it’s not my way of writing and there’s no use pretending it is.”
“You whittle everything down to too sharp a point,” Tulip said.” I didn’t say you ought to let your reader run hog-wild on you like that, though I can’t see any objections to letting them do your work for you if they want to, bu –”
“Not enough want to make it profitable,” I said, “though you’re likely to get nice reviews.”

I’m not sure if Hammett ever could have finished Tulip, although he wrote the last few paragraphs; the story has no plot at all, instead just relying on an extended, meandering dialogue between the writer, Pop, and the character Tulip, who wants more than anything to give Pop the material for some new story or book, even though Tulip’s stories themselves may be mostly fiction. Dialogue tends to read quickly, of course, but the lack of any narrative greed made Tulip slow going overall, and would be of interest only to Hammett completists or those who, like me, wished for more of a window into the writer’s soul.

The remaining stories in The Big Knockover are pulp detective stories, and in general lacked the austerity and tension of his best novels or even of the stories starring the same detective found in the collection The Continental Op, which I recommend very highly if you’re into detective fiction at all. In The Big Knockover, the plotting is mostly Hammett with familiar patterns and the usual double-crossing, but the language is gussied up for what I presume was the mass market. The long series of nicknames for crooks appearing in the title story was the last straw for me, names like “The Shivering Kid” and “Paddy the Mex” … that much egg salad just distracted me from what was going on underneath the silly language. And one story, “Dead Yellow Women,” is so full of racist language and stereotypes aimed at Asians that I nearly gave up in disgust. The strongest one in the collection is the opener, “The Gutting of Couffignal,” about a major heist on a wealthy island enclave reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s West and East Egg, where Hammett uses weather and a wide cast of characters to build and sustain tension until the end of the story.

Next up: Jasper Fforde’s One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, book six in the Thursday Next series, which is living up to expectations through the first third.


When I wrote about Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom a year and a half ago, I asked if any of you had seen his previous movie, Brick, a hard-boiled detective story set in a modern high school. Nine of you said in the comments I needed to see it, and several more of you have suggested it since then. I’m usually pretty safe with reader recommendations … and this was no exception. I was blown away by Brick – very smart, occasionally funny, great narrative greed, and all kinds of homages to one of my favorite genres in literature. (Worth mentioning: it’s just $3.94 on DVD right now at amazon.)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Brendan, an intelligent but slightly aloof high school student whose ex-girlfriend has gone missing for several weeks. He receives a panicked phone call from her, sees her one more time, and within 48 hours she ends up dead, leaving him to try to unravel the mystery, which leads him into his school’s subculture of dope-dealing and hilarious posing along with the full allotment of tough guys, fake tough guys, violence, and apple juice.

The film is characterized as “neo-noir,” although I’d stick with “hard-boiled” given Brendan’s character and the terse, quick dialogue through nearly all of the film. Brendan is quick with the ripostes, and a few other characters manage to match him quip for quip, like the character Laura, of the high class and uncertain motives, responding to him on the phone.

Laura: Who is this?
Brendan: I won’t waste your time. You don’t know me.
Laura: (slowly) I know everyone, and I have all the time in the world.
Brendan: Ah, the folly of youth.

The characters nearly all speak quickly – occasionally unintelligibly – and the pacing is brisk, while the dialogue has just enough slang to give it an altered-reality feel without overselling the noir feel. Johnson layered the plot with a red herring or two and even gave Brendan a brilliant sidekick, just called The Brain, complete with thick-lensed glasses (with hipster frames, as it turns out) and a machine-gun delivery.

The script is brilliant, but the performances elevated the movie to plus. One of the hardest things for a teenaged actor or actress to do is to play a teenaged character who’s supposed to act like an adult – it usually comes off as forced, often with unintentionally comic results. But Levitt sells his character quickly and easily; by the one-quarter mark, you’re no longer distracted by that age/speech discrepancy and are buying Brendan as a viable young adult, rather than a kid playing dress-up. Without that performance, the center of the movie wouldn’t hold.

Most of the other cast members filled their roles admirably with Brendan at the center; Meagan Wood, who seems to be better known for appearing in African-American sitcoms and bad horror films, stands out as one of two femmes fatales (and the much more convincing of the two) as a cold, manipulative actress tied up on the fringes of the central crime but who enjoys toying with Brendan when he comes for information. The other femme fatale is played by the adorable Nora Zehetner, who simply doesn’t fit her part, not in looks (it would be fair to say that a doe was Nora Zehetner-eyed) or in articulation (the precise, upper-class speech of her character doesn’t fit her actions or motivations). That’s not on Zehetner, but on whoever made the casting decision. You wouldn’t cast me as Tug for similar reasons – I could be the greatest actor since Olivier but I couldn’t sell you on a character I’m not physically built to play.

For someone like me, infatuated with the style and tension of hard-boiled literature, Brick is sublime – a brilliant adaptation of a great story Dashiell Hammett forgot to write. It’s the rare movie I’d actually want to watch again.

Next up: In Bruges.

The Little Sister.

I’m back at mental_floss today with an article about the designing of the game Dominion, based on an email exchange I had with designer Donald X. Vaccarino.

“Do you drink, Mr. Marlowe?”
“Well, now that you mention it–”
“I don’t think I’d care to employ a detective that uses liquor in any form. I don’t even approve of tobacco.”
“Would it be all right if I peeled an orange?”

Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe isn’t just hard-boiled – he’s dry, sarcastic, self-effacing, and mercurial, making him one of the most compelling protagonists I’ve found in any novel in any genre. Consigning Chander’s novels to the detective-fiction bin does him a great disservice, as his greatness is in his mastery of the language; not only is the prose itself readable and rich with metaphor, but it becomes the tool by which Chandler creates well-rounded characters through a handful of seemingly effortless lines.

I understand that The Big Sleep is considered Chandler’s best work, and it is phenomenal … but there’s little to no difference between that and Farewell, My Lovely, or the work I just finished over the weekend, The Little Sister. They’re all superb, all following the basic Chandler template of putting Marlowe in a situation where the line between solving the case and saving his life is blurry.

In The Little Sister the titular character – quoted above – shows up in Marlowe’s office, asking the gumshoe to help find her older brother, who has disappeared in Bay City not long after leaving his family in Manhattan, Kansas. Marlowe takes the case against his better judgment (S.O.P. for him), even though he believes the girl is holding back information. With a modest amount of investigating, Marlowe ends up in the middle of a blackmail scheme, a dope ring, and a lot of questionable identities – something Chandler creates in his usual economical way, with just a handful of new characters outside of a few corpses.

I picked the wrong time to read The Little Sister by starting it on day one of the winter meetings, which left me very little time to actually read the book until the meetings ended on Thursday – frustrating when it’s a book you never want to put down in the first place. I found it moved more quickly than The Big Sleep, but the plot was a little less complex – it was relatively easy to figure out what most of the characters were up to, and I say that as someone who almost never figures things out in books – so the question of which is the better book is one of personal taste. (It’s possible that The Big Sleep enjoys its status at the top of Chandler’s canon because of its film adaptation, directed by Howard Hawks with Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe.) No matter where you start, though, if you haven’t given Chandler at least one shot, I can’t recommend his work highly enough.

The Simple Art of Murder.

Playing catchup on the reading list a bit here … Raymond Chandler, one of my favorite authors in any genre, wasn’t an especially prolific writer; he published nothing until he was in his forties and his total output was seven completed novels and (according to this Chandler bibliography) 25 short stories, some of which he expanded into novels years after they were published in pulp magazines. The Simple Art of Murder includes eight of his short stories as well as his famous essay from Atlantic Monthly that gave the collection its title. That essay is a spirited defense of the detective story as a literary art form while also serving as a criticism of the degeneration of the genre through what Chandler seems to have considered hack writing, including contrived plot details and unrealistic motives.

The short stories seemed to lack the crisp writing and brisk pacing of the Chandler novels I’ve read, but the constant change of detective characters and milieus means that if you like the genre at all, you’ll probably find a story in the collection that hits all the high notes for you. It’s more a matter of taste than quality, but I enjoyed “Pearls Are a Nuisance” with its main detective’s stilted language and light parody of bad detective stories, and the closing story, “Nevada Gas,” which had a faster pace, higher stakes, and a slightly more intricate plot than any of the other stories. None of them can match The Big Sleep or The Long Goodbye for character or tension, so if you’re new to Chandler I’d recommend you start with those novels and save Murder for later.

Worth checking out: The Raymond Chandler fansite I mentioned above is the best resource I’ve seen on his works. You can read the full text of the essay “The Simple Art of Murder.”

Foyle’s War.

Many readers here and at have recommended various TV series to me, notably The Office and The Wire, so I’m going to return the favor by recommending a series that you’ve probably never seen. It’s a British series called Foyle’s War, and it might just be my favorite TV series ever.

Foyle’s War doesn’t fit the description of a typical American television series. Each episode is 100 minutes long, which in the U.S. would make it either a movie or a “very special episode.” The show, which just finished its sixth and final season in the UK, has just nineteen episodes in total. It’s bleak, set in the southern English town of Hastings during the early years of World War II, with such topics as the Blitz, German fifth column elements, biological warfare, and anti-German/anti-Italian sentiment all coming into play. And everything about the show is understated, almost magically so.

I’ve watched my share of American crime dramas – God knows we have a few of them – and the one trait they all have in common is the gotcha. Each hour is broken up into six or seven segments (separated by commercial breaks of unendurable length), and each segment ends with some sort of “Gotcha!” moment – a big twist, a sudden discovery, or just some deus ex machina event of critical evidence just falling into the investigators’ laps. If you love that style of show, Foyle’s War will seem slow in comparison. The stories, while complex, are writ small, with the title character, Deputy Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle, unraveling mysteries by uncovering minor details and using them to guide his next interrogation. It’s so subtle that it could probably never work as an American series, even if a writer could successfully transplant its setting to our shores.

The superb plotting is enhanced by the incredible performances of Michael Kitchen as DCS Foyle. The writers have gifted him with an economy of words, and he maximizes their impact through small gestures and facial expressions, as well as a classically English way of delivering a cutting remark to ensure that it breaks the skin. Never has a television character uttered the words “Is that so?” to such devastating effect.

In addition to purchasing the first season on DVD via the link above, you can get the first five seasons (four DVD sets) via Netflix. There’s also a great Foyle’s War fansite (with its own updates blog) if you’re looking for more detailed info on the series.

Don’t Look Back.

Reader Abel Wang was kind enough to first recommend and then lend me a copy of Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back, a straightforward detective novel that won the Glass Key Award for the best detective novel written by an author from any of the five Nordic countries.

Don’t Look Back is a very quick read, and I knocked it off in a few subway trips over a 24-hour period in New York City. The main character, Chief Inspector Konrad Sejer, isn’t the hard-boiled type I like most (Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade), but is more of a stoic without a strong personality trait to define him. He’s a young widower and a grandfather, and both characteristics bring some touches of humanity to his approach to this particular case, but given that he’s the central character and now has appeared in a series of detective novels that followed this one, he could use something to set his character apart.

The story is set in a small Norwegian town, where a fifteen-year-old girl is found dead near a lake, her body naked except for an anorak laid on top of her. What set this novel apart from most mass-market detective books was the gradual unfolding of the back story behind the victim and behind the various suspects and witnesses Sejer and his partner Skarre interrogate. Most pulp detective novels today unfurl the story in a small number of very large discoveries, wow moments that seem more designed for a film adaptation or just to shock the reader into feeling excited. Fossum instead brings out the details slowly, in small doses, often presenting them as facts without immediate relevance, which strikes me as a lot more realistic and is definitely a lot less contrived.

Fossum also manages to fold in small details about characters who ultimately have nothing to do with the resolution of the main mystery, but whose interactions with Sejer lead to something small further down the line – for example, when he interviews a Turkish family that has had some trouble assimilating into the community, the father offers a suggestion for Sejer’s eczema … and several chapters later, in an offhand sentence, it appears that Sejer has followed his advice, implying even that Sejer went to the family’s store to pick up the folk remedy in question.

This subtle, fine-pointed approach has an obvious downside, which is that readers used to the big wow are going to find the book dull and the climax anticlimactic. That approach felt a lot more real to me than the constant crescendos of the typical detective novel and of the typical TV crime drama, and I enjoyed the way Fossum depicted Sejer slowly gaining understanding through diligence and through dialogues with his partner. While I prefer the stylings of Hammett and Chandler, for a more contemporary and straightforward detective story, Don’t Look Back was right in line with what I like to read.

Cortázar, Hammett, and a nonfiction book.

Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch is a bizarre novel; the first 56 chapters represent a complete work, a single story with a single protagonist and enough pseudo-intellectual pablum to make this Virginia Woolf hater want to light the book on fire. The last third of the book comprises interstitial chapters which may be added to the story proper if the reader wants to read the longer work. A few relate to the main narrative, a few more are of the newspaper-clipping style seen in a lot of other works, but most are just nonsense. The book is quite acclaimed – someone named C.D.B. Bryan is quoted as saying it’s his favorite novel, although why I’m supposed to take the opinion of a man with three initials in place of a first name seriously I have no idea – but it was a slog, and even slowed down towards the end. The core storyline is somewhat directionless, and doesn’t really conclude in any conventional sense; the main character needs a smack upside the head, both to get him to stop talking nonsense and to get him to do something with his life. The “freewheeling adventures” promised on the book’s jacket don’t even begin until the book is two-thirds finished, and they’re not freewheeling, not terribly adventurous, and are by and large extremely boring. (Exception: a bit of chapter 51, where the main character begins working at an asylum, a scene which sparks a few laughs.) So I wouldn’t exactly recommend this one.

Cleaning up a few books I read in March: Dashiel Hammett’s The Thin Man doesn’t exactly need my recommendation. Hammett’s one of my favorite authors, with a spare style that conveys so much more than Hemingway’s more-praised sparseness (which often struck me as a bit sing-song). That said, I’d probably send Hammett first-timers The Maltese Falcon, and for readers who want a lot of action I’d recommend Red Harvest. The Thin Man is best-known for the characters it introduced to the world, Nick and Nora Charles, but the book didn’t have quite the same tension as the other two I mentioned.

Ingrid Rowland’s The Scarith of Scornello was a fun, short read, telling the true story of a simple hoax orchestrated by a teenager in 16th-century Tuscany that turned into an elaborate academic fraud and ended up altering the course of the kid’s entire life. It’s billed as a bit of a mystery, which it isn’t, because the back cover of the book tells you that the whole thing was a hoax, and it turns out that some of the teenager’s contemporaries knew it was a hoax all along, while others were more than happy to believe in artifacts that appeared to increase the glory of their region in ancient times.