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Category Archives: Mysteries

Funny How Time Slips Away: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Reading is like breathing — don’t do enough of it and your brain cells start to die. Not necessarily the brain cells responsible for walking, hanging up on telephone solicitors and calculating four-way tips on a restaurant bill, but the ones responsible for writing. And I do a lot of writing so it’s necessary that I read.

Dark Places

Dark Places: Don’t let the padlock fool you. There isn’t much inside.

Over the last year I’ve been remiss in my reading habits, as you can tell if you scroll down to the previous book review in this blog and note that it was posted on July 27, 2014. Not that I haven’t been reading since then. I have. I’ve been reading the beginnings of books that I never finished, click-bait articles that somehow wandered into my Facebook feed and the occasional magazine (though I’ve been falling behind in my magazine reading too, something I plan to remedy).

I also read two entire novels during the last year, which I’ve somehow never gotten around to writing about here. I plan to remedy that too, starting with this post, which is about Gillian Flynn’s novel Dark Places. Unfortunately, I don’t really remember a whole lot about Dark Places, partly because it’s been close to a year since I read it and partly because, well, it wasn’t all that memorable.

Not that it was bad. I suspect that anything by Flynn is worth reading, which is why I picked it up, having been deeply impressed by the wit, plotting and deftly deceptive characterization in Flynn’s novel Gone Girl when I read it three years ago. I read Dark Places looking for more of the same and to some extent I found it — at least Dark Places has the same acerbic, observational cleverness of Gone Girl and some of the same strong characterization, but in the matter of plot it felt like Flynn started with the spark of an idea that she never managed to kindle (no pun on my ebook reader intended) into an actual flame.

I honestly don’t remember a lot of the plot, but here’s what I can give you: Libby Day, a 30-ish woman who survived the violent massacre of her family when she was a child, has spent most of her life living on the charitable funds generated by the sympathetic stories about her that periodically grace the pages of magazines and true-crime newscasts. The charity is running out, however, and Libby, who has never worked for a living, finds herself with no marketable skills and no desire to develop the sort of likable personality that might get her either a job or a husband. It’s this desperation for funds that drives her to accept a paid invitation from a club of amateur crime solvers who enjoy revisiting particularly gruesome murder narratives and finding flaws in the original conclusions reached by the judiciary system.

Libby expects the club to consist of creeps and borderline psychos who get off on blood and gore, but they’re mostly harmless nerds who enjoy arguing about clues and courtroom testimony. The particular subgroup dedicated to the Day family massacre is largely convinced that the person eventually convicted of the crime, Libby’s older brother, is innocent — which comes as a surprise to Libby, because she’s pretty much accepted her brother’s culpability, even though he was probably the family member closest to her before the killings occurred. She never visits him in prison and is reluctant to do so even at the club’s request, until they offer her money to talk to him. Being on the verge of homelessness actually motivates Libby to discard her apathy — and, more importantly, to face up to the “dark places” in her brain that concern the crime — in ways that she hasn’t over the previous quarter of a century. The club members gradually convince her that her brother may in fact be innocent, and, um, things happen. There’s something about the brother’s former girlfriend and a lot about women with red hair, a hallmark of the Day family.

Wish I could tell you more — and I probably could have, back when I’d finished the book. Though I suspect that one of the reasons I’ve put off writing this review for so long is that I really didn’t have a lot to say about it even then. I remember finding the ending not entirely satisfactory; I felt that Flynn had thrown in one plot element too many, perhaps to throw red herrings in the reader’s path, more likely because she felt she was at least one subplot short of a novel.

Whatever, my enthusiasm for Flynn’s writing remains undimmed, but it still largely hinges on the deep impression that Gone Girl made with me. Eventually I’ll go back and read Flynn’s first novel, Sharp Objects, and probably be even more disappointed, but as a stylist Flynn is engaging enough that even her lesser works, like this one, are worth reading.

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Going, Going: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl cover
I had heard so much praise for this book (and one interesting demurral from an Internet friend) that I was prepared to be seriously disappointed by it. Yes, it would be a decent crime thriller, but like most decent crime thrillers it was probably being praised less because it was good and more because it didn’t totally reek.

God, was I wrong!

Gone Girl is one of the two or three best books I’ve read since I started writing these book reports three years ago and is quite possibly the best crime/mystery/thriller I’ve read ever (unless you count The Silence of the Lambs, which I don’t think will ever be surpassed). Why do I love it so much? Let me count the ways:

Plot: The plot of Gone Girl is a clockwork mechanism that unfolds so naturally that you never sense that it was outlined or planned in advance and yet so perfectly that Gillian Flynn must have plotted it within an inch of its life before ever putting words on her hard drive. It’s a continuing miracle of ingenuity and I was impressed again and again by the way Flynn develops the story. And did I mention that it’s utterly gripping?

Character: The two main characters, Nick (the husband) and Amy (the wife), are so well drawn that Flynn is actually able to turn characterization itself into a plot twist, something I’m not going to further explain. The minor characters, while not always depicted with depth, are always believable and almost always interesting. Nick’s sister Go, short for Margo, is the most fully realized and the most important to the plot, but Flynn’s portrait of the press corps is especially vivid, with a particularly venomous depiction of Nancy Grace, here referred to as Ellen Abbott.

Style: Every line of the novel is written with such incisive wit that, even when I wanted to swipe my finger across the screen of my e-reader to find out what happened next, I forced myself to read slowly just to enjoy the prose. Not only does it crackle, but it occasionally made me laugh out loud. And Flynn neatly avoids the cliched tone of the crime genre, producing something that reads like Jonathan Franzen could have written if Jonathan Franzen would lower himself to writing genre fiction.

But most of all I love it because, somewhere in the midsection of the book, Flynn pulls off the greatest plot twist I’ve seen since the TV show Lost switched from flashbacks to flashforwards. It’s the kind of twist that snaps your head around and makes you rethink everything that’s happened up until that moment. I love it when that happens in a book and I haven’t seen it happen that much lately (or at least the great plot twists seem to have moved from books to serial TV shows). There used to be writers — I’m thinking specifically here of William Goldman, Ira Levin and John Farris — who could do 180 degree turns in the middle of a novel and leave you gasping at the sheer audacity of their literary stunt work, but I was beginning to think that this was a lost art.

I guess I should do a brief plot summary, but I’m not going to dwell on it. Gone Girl is the story of a marriage gone sour, the marriage between the aforementioned Nick and Amy, and it turns on the disappearance of Amy on the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary. Flynn rather ingeniously tells the story in double first person, with Nick and Amy narrating alternating chapters. Nick’s chapters are set in the present time (which is some point in 2012, when the book was published) and Amy’s chapters, which are couched as diary entries, fill in the expository details, giving the reader the back story that led up to the present situation. This works amazingly well, once again reminding me of Lost in the way that Amy’s flashbacks illuminate Nick’s present time action, and it’s this narrative technique that makes the stunning plot twist possible.

If Flynn falters anywhere it’s in the final chapters, where the novel becomes a kind of chess game with players alternating moves and I began to sense that Flynn didn’t know which move to end on. I think she chose the right player to end with, but there’s a sense that she ends the story more because she has to than because she found the right moment to do it. At the very least I wish the final chapter had left more of a sense of what was going to happen after the book was over; there are hints, but I found them rather weak.

But the 95 percent of the book leading up to the end is so brilliantly conceived that I’ll happily forgive Flynn for any imperfections in the way she sums things up.

Ceaselessly Into the Past: Laura Lippman’s I’d Know You Anywhere

Book #5 for 2012: I’d Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman


When I came to the back matter at the end of I’d Know You Anywhere, I found myself surprised in several different ways. It turns out that Laura Lippman, the book’s author, is a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun and author of quite a few previous novels, many of them based, however loosely, on true crimes. This is not only the biography of a rather ordinary-sounding mystery novelist, but — and I’m sure this betrays some deep prejudice of mine — someone who is a bit of a hack mystery novelist, someone who dashes off clichéd suspense fiction in the flat, lifeless prose so typical of the bestselling novels one finds on the paperback bookshelf in the supermarket, next to magazines showcasing the scandalous lives of reality TV show stars. So let’s just say that I’m glad this back matter was precisely that: back matter. If it had been front matter and had come before the novel itself, I doubt that I’d ever have bothered to read what followed.

Because I would have been completely wrong about Lippman. She isn’t a hack; she isn’t even really a mystery writer, at least not in this particular novel (though she takes a humorous jab at such hack “true crime” writers by casting one as a minor character in one of the book’s later chapters). Lippman’s tone is literary without being self conscious about it, the kind of prose that I love because it holds my attention without ever making me feel as though my attention is either being taken advantage of or flattered for its superlative taste. Lippman writes with intelligence that never spills over into pretentiousness. And while I can’t say that I’d Know You Anywhere is likely to be the best novel that I’ll read this year, it’s certainly the best I’ve read so far and I’d happily read any of the other dozen or so Lippman novels that are listed in that back matter.

I’d Know You Anywhere is about a crime (one that Lippman says afterwards is based on a real crime though just in minor ways) but the novel doesn’t so much focus on the crime itself as on the people involved in the crime and how, despite the crime’s inevitable effects on their lives, they never manage to be anything remotely like the people you’d expect them to be. The specific story being told is about a 15-year-old girl who is kidnapped and held prisoner for 39 days by a young man who is afraid she has witnessed him murdering another teenage girl. The specific reason for that particular murder is left vague — deliberately, I think — but the young man has no intention of also murdering the girl he kidnaps. In fact, he seems to like her. He simply keeps her with him, driving around Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia (through many of the areas where I lived before I moved to California, so the book’s locales are hauntingly familiar to me). And then he lets her go.

Though it is not a mystery novel, it does have a mystery: Why does he let this girl get away and not the other girls he’s killed? (There turn out to be several other victims.) I can tell you this without it being spoilerish because it’s part of the novel’s set up, not its resolution. The story is told long after the fact, largely from the viewpoint of the 40-ish woman that the 15-year-old kidnap victim has grown up to be, after she’s contacted by her kidnapper shortly before he’s to be executed; having exhausted all his legal appeals, he wants a last chance to talk to her. He won’t say why, but he insists on the opportunity to see her and the woman eventually gives in.

It’s to Lippman’s credit that this isn’t a conventional suspense novel; she dwells very little on the possibility of any physical threat to the woman or her family, which now includes a rebellious daughter, a doting son, a loving husband and a large dog. Rather, she concentrates on the psychological aspects of the story: How was the now-adult 15-year-old changed by her kidnapping? Why did she stay with her kidnapper for 39 days when she had ample opportunity to escape? What was her complicity, if any, in the murder of his final victim, who was killed two days before the kidnapper released her?

I’d Know You Anywhere is a novel that is extraordinary precisely it seems not to be extraordinary. In fact I suspect that it’s representative of what Lippman has been writing during the more than two decades that she’s been a novelist. What surprises me is that she’s been turning out fine prose like this so quietly in a genre — the crime novel — that I’ve generally kept my eye on, if only with mild interest, and that I wasn’t even aware of her. I strongly recommend I’d Know You Anywhere if you like crime fiction and have grown tired of the clichés of the genre. I doubt that I’ll wait very long before seeing if Lippman’s other books are as good as this one.

When Harry Met Mickey: Two Michael Connelly Novels

Book #24 for 2011: The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly
Book #25 for 2011: The Overlook by Michael Connelly

It’s been a month since I last filed one of these book reports and there’s a reason for that. I ran into a book, one that I’d really been looking forward to reading, that stopped me dead in my tracks. At some point I realized that I’d been reading the book for nearly four weeks and wasn’t even halfway through it. I was having trouble forcing myself to read more than 20 pages a day without developing either a strong urge to sleep or an overwhelming compulsion to play a computer game. I eventually decided that I needed a break from the book and that I should find a book that was both shorter (the book I was reading was a 900-plus page monster) and more readable.

The last time something like this happened, I turned to the generally reliable Stephen King to jumpstart my reading habit. But King has a huge book of his own coming out in a few days and I don’t want to become glutted on his writing style before I get a chance to read it. So I thought instead of Michael Connelly, whose courtroom thriller The Lincoln Lawyer had turned out to be both readable and entertaining when I picked it up earlier this year.

This time I randomly selected his 2008 novel The Brass Verdict, which by sheer coincidence turned out to be a direct sequel to The Lincoln Lawyer. It’s the second book featuring lawyer Mickey Haller and begins with Haller returning to legal practice after a hiatus brought about by the events that ended The Lincoln Lawyer, which introduced the character. Reading about Haller was almost as much fun this time as it was the first and once again Connelly gave the impression of knowing a lot of stuff about being a criminal attorney that doesn’t find its way into legal textbooks. The Brass Verdict is a short, fast read, has a twisty plot, and an array of interesting characters, the most interesting of which is once again the very engaging Mr. Haller. Another of the characters, in a kind of literary crossover, is LAPD detective Hieronymous “Harry” Bosch, who has played the leading role in a lengthy series of novels that seem to form much of the basis for Connelly’s reputation as a crime writer. (I eventually realized that this was the novel that Amy’s brother, himself a Connelly fan, had once jokingly referred to as When Harry Met Mickey.)

I figured since Detective Bosch has figured so prominently in Connelly’s career that I really ought to read one of the novels where he’s the star rather than just a supporting player for Haller. So once again more or less at random I chose the 2007 novel The Overlook, in which a murder investigation involving Bosch becomes tangled up in a terrorism investigation involving the FBI. I wish I could say that The Overlook was as entertaining as the two Mickey Haller novels that I’ve read, but I can’t. Despite a mildly clever twist ending that I should have seen coming but didn’t, it’s really little more than a standard police procedural, written in the flat, toneless prose that so many of these sorts of books have (I wonder if I’d feel that way about Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct procedurals if I read one of them today?) and lacking the spark of interesting characters and inside revelations that make the Haller books so engaging. I think there are two reasons that, so far, I prefer the Haller books to the Bosch books. The first is that the Bosch books are told in the third person, which for many authors works well but in Connelly’s prose tends to distance the reader from the action, while the Haller novels are narrated in the first person, letting Haller’s lively narrative voice lift the story a bit out of the realm of the ordinary. The second is that, well, Connelly has written a hell of a lot of books about Harry Bosch and may well have told all the stories about him that really deserve to be told. At some later point I may read one or two of the earlier Bosch novels, to see if he was more interesting back in, say, the 1990s.

In the meantime I’m going to take another crack at that massive novel I put down in order to read these two. If I finish it, I may even tell you what it is.

The (Not Quite) Lost Art of Crime Writing: Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer

Book #16 for 2011: The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly

When I was in my 20s, I followed the work of several crime and mystery writers. Not just the classic hardboiled writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and drawing room mystery writers like Agatha Christie, but several modern (for that period) authors: Ross MacDonald, whose Lew Archer mysteries always started with the eponymous detective being hired to track down a runaway child or bride but ended with the discovery of the dark and tragic secret history of some Southern California family; Ed McBain, whose 87th Precinct procedurals were so breezy and compulsively readable that I’d sometimes go through two or three in a day; and Donald Westlake, whose Dortmunder series was a bit too repetitive for my tastes but whose standalone crime novels combined a darkly comic sensibility with a gift for Hitchcockian chase thrillers.

And then I sort of lost interest, both in reading novels in general and in reading mysteries in particular. By the 1990s I was seeing the names of new crime fiction writers appear regularly on the bestseller shelf at my local drugstore, names like Harlan Coben, Lee Child, John Sandford, George Pelecanos, James Patterson…and Michael Connelly. When I would grow curious about one of these authors and sample their work, I was usually disappointed. Much of what they produced seemed slight and superficial, or just a bit trite, compared to the mysteries I’d read when I was young. (See my earlier nasty comments about the novels of Lee Child.) But I figured that, somewhere among them, there must be one or two authors who actually knew how to write decent crime fiction.

Michael Connelly came highly recommended. Stephen King, an author I respect, seems to tout Connelly’s work every chance he gets. Amy’s brother has an entire shelf of autographed books by Connelly. And The Lincoln Lawyer was made into a fairly well received movie earlier this year. So I decided to give him a chance.

And what do you know? He’s not bad. The Lincoln Lawyer certainly towers above anything I’ve read by Lee Child and I found it meatier than the Carl Hiaasen novel I read earlier this year. It’s not perfect. The characters tend toward stock figures, albeit fairly well-drawn stock figures, but the novel has three things about it that work very much in its favor.

The first is that Connelly clearly knows a great deal about how the law works, and not just the textbook way in which the justice system is supposed to function, but the way it functions in practice, with lawyers making shady deals and pulling the wool over their client’s eyes with legalistic sleight of hand. Judging from the acknowledgments at the end, this isn’t because Connelly has any law experience of his own but because he interviewed a lot of lawyers and even, yes, judges before he wrote this book. (It’s also possible that Connelly is very good at making up the kind of things that people are talking about when they say “you can’t make that stuff up.”)

The second is that he has a very good plot twist that goes off almost exactly in the middle of the novel, one that completely turns the story around and lets the reader know that the story they thought they were going to read is quite the opposite of the story they’re actually going to get.

The third is the main character, Mickey Haller, who narrates the novel in the first person. This was the first in a series of novels that Connelly has been writing about Haller, a sleazebag criminal lawyer who discovers belatedly that he has a conscience. It’s Haller who tells the reader about all the shady tricks that lawyers play and Haller who rises above the stock character threshold. Not that some genre cliches don’t slip into Haller’s life. He has the requisite ex-wife who chides him about not spending enough time with his daughter, with the twist that the ex-wife is also a prosecutor who he sometimes faces off against in court.

The Lincoln Lawyer is a fast, entertaining read and if I were still in my 20s I’d probably decide that Connelly is the sort of writer I could read several books by in a day. But, seriously, who over the age of 30 has the time or the attention span for that kind of thing? I know I don’t.

Hey, Hey, We’re the Slut Puppies: Basket Case

Book #4 for 2011: Basket Case by Carl Hiaasen

My girlfriend Amy’s a fan of Carl Hiaasen. Her brother is a fan of Carl Hiaasen. An ex-boss of mine was a fan of Carl Hiaasen and once loaned me a copy of Hiaasen’s novel Stormy Weather, which I regrettably never got around to finishing. It seems like the whole world loves Carl Hiaasen and who am I not to give him a fair reading?

So I picked up Basket Case because it looked like fun. And it was. It’s not exactly a mystery novel because it’s pretty obvious almost from the beginning who the killer is. (I tried picking out a less likely suspect, but this proved pointless.) So call it crime fiction or even newspaper reporter fiction, if that’s a genre. It’s about a neurotic obituary writer who picks up a story about a recently deceased rock star who fronted an over-the-hill band called Jimmy and the Slut Puppies and decides he can use it to get a much-coveted front page assignment. (The title of the novel comes from one of the band’s moldy oldie hits, though it obliquely describes the obituary writer himself, who is obsessed with comparing his own age with the ages of dead celebrities, especially ones he hasn’t quite outlived yet.) The story turns into a murder case and Hiaasen complicates the plot by pitting the writer against the clueless rich kid whose family has taken over the paper he works for. Along the way Hiaasen demonstrates considerable knowledge of classic rock and namechecks a lot of actual performers and albums from the 60s through 80s, which suggests that Hiaasen is about the same age as I am. (I’ll check Wikipedia after I write this and see.)

All of this is breezy and fun, with a carefully constructed plot, some chuckles, and characters that are fresh and a little quirky without ever descending into zaniness. If I have a problem with the novel it’s a problem that I have with a lot of detective and mystery fiction: There’s not really a lot that stays with you afterward. I’m not sure if this is a complaint, exactly; the purpose of the book is clearly to provide light diversion and on that score it delivers. And, because Hiaasen’s unquestionably good at what he does, I’ll probably read more by him in the future.

Murder She Wrote…and Wrote…and Wrote….

Book #16 (April 30, 2010): And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
Book #17 (May 10, 2010): Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie
Book #18 (May 17, 2010): The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie

Time was I used to have a couple of dozen Agatha Christie paperbacks on my bookshelf and would pull one down periodically for a bit of light reading. And light reading they were: Christie’s novels tend to be so airy and insubstantial that if you don’t hold on to them with both hands there’s a genuine danger that they might float away before you have a chance to turn the page. Not that this is bad. In fact, I think much of Christie’s charm was that she perfected a form of murder mystery in which murder didn’t have to be taken the least bit seriously. I mean, quite honestly, can you imagine anyone shedding a tear for one of her fluff-headed murder victims?

It had been a while since I’d read one of her novels, though, and I thought it time to read several in a row, to see if they still went down as easily as they did when I was in my 20s. The answer is that, yes, they do, but they don’t seem quite as much fun anymore. The fault isn’t really Christie’s. It’s that the form she invented has been so relentlessly imitated and parodied over the years that even reading a Christie novel you haven’t read before is like reading a book you’ve already memorized, if only because you’ve seen all of the movies and TV shows that have done her plots to death.

That, in fact, is why I wanted to read And Then There Were None. Although I’d never read it before, I knew the basic story pretty well, because there was a time when it was repeatedly pastiched in any number of media. In fact, a friend of mine pointed out that it’s the basis for most of the slasher movies of the last 30 years, as well as for the 1976 musical Something’s Afoot. (True confession: I ripped off the basics of the plot for my second Hardy Boys novel, The Dungeon of Doom.) It’s the one where a group of seemingly unrelated people are invited to a remote location and then killed off one by one, in imitation of the old nursery rhyme “Ten Little Indians.” (Interesting side note: The original British title of the novel was “Ten Little N–gers.” You can see why that was changed for the American editions.) As much as I wanted to enjoy this one, because I think it was at one time an immensely clever idea, I felt that Christie bit off more here than she could chew. The short length of mystery novels in the 1930s and 40s (the book was originally published in 1939) allows Christie very little room for characterization, so much so that even though Christie has the sense to hang easily identifiable labels on the ten characters — the hanging judge, the Bible-thumping spinster, the carefree bachelor — it’s sometimes hard to tell the characters apart. And the action is so rushed that there were times when I wasn’t even sure what was going on. But worst of all the convoluted nature of the story requires not one but TWO lengthy (and, frankly, boring) epilogues just to explain how the hell the book’s many mysterious contrivances could have taken place.

Appointment with Death is a considerably better novel. Christie creates a rather compelling setup about a family under the psychological domination of a monstrous mother, who not surprisingly turns up dead about halfway through. (Honestly, that’s not much of a spoiler. If you can’t see that coming from the first page, you must be a complete newcomer to the mystery genre.) Naturally our old friend Hercule Poirot is in the vicinity and is called in to consult. The situation is interesting enough to keep the pages turning, but…am I the only person on earth who finds Poirot an unbearably pompous jerk? (I’m probably not, because I think it’s his pompous jerkiness that makes the character so popular.) Presented with the bare facts of the case he promptly announces that he will have it solved, without the slightest possibility of failure, within 24 hours — and, of course, he does. This makes Poirot a fantasy character because such elegant solutions aren’t possible in the real world, where Christie isn’t pulling strings to make the clues fall together so neatly. But nobody reads Christie for realism, do they?

The Body in the Library is a Miss Marple story and it’s about as formulaic a drawing room mystery as I can imagine. Heck, it begins with a body turning up, quite literally, in a drawing room. Christie as always seems to have her tongue in her cheek here and you sense her winking at the reader and saying, “I know you love every one of these cliches as much as I do and that’s why I’m giving them to you in the most straightforward manner possible.” Fortunately, Miss Marple is the anti-Poirot. Where Poirot has an ego as large as Europe, Miss Marple fades into the wallpaper for much of the novel and only emerges politely at the end to explain the details the police have missed. She’s very sweet about it and you really can’t hold it against her that she’s every bit as much a fantasy being as Poirot is.