et cetera

The Zero by Jess Walter. Harper Perennial, 2006. 9780061189432.

Gene: OK, Sarah, you made me read this book by Jess Walter, your favorite writer. Go!

Sarah: Yeah, and I’ve been sort of rationing his books out because a novelist can only write so fast and I was reluctant to run out of them. Reading this, I realize I need to stop being reluctant and just gobble the rest of them up.

G: What was your favorite? The one where you were in love with the protagonist?

S: Citizen Vince. I was in love with Vince. The Zero is really… I’m going to say it’s different plot-wise, but the stuff that I love about Jess Walter is that he writes the kinds of sentences that make you stop and just appreciate how good they are.

G: Yeah.

S: So I feel like I don’t care what genre he writes in, I don’t care what the plot is, I just want to read his writing. But I am glad that I went into this book without reading the back of it, I didn’t know anything about it except I thought it was a mystery. And it does use bits of the genre — elements of noir and of mystery — but it’s not really in it.

G: You think it was noir? It didn’t feel very noir to me. It was kind of a detective book though. Give me the pitch.

S: The first page, a guy opens his eyes, he sees an empty bottle of booze on its side, and the carpet looks like the treeline of a forest. He starts with this description of what this guy on the floor is seeing and the guy eventually gets that his head hurts and he’s bleeding. He figures out that he shot himself. Possibly on purpose, possibly not. He left a note for himself that said, “et cetera.” This sets the tone of the book. This guy is losing chunks of time.

G: Right, he’s unstuck in his life, like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five.

Continue reading “et cetera”

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My Favorite Murder

The Case of the Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin. Felony and Mayhem Press, 2005, originally published 1944. 9781933397009.

After thoroughly enjoying The Moving Toyshop, I decided to go back to the first book featuring literary detective Gervase Fen. A company of actors and a playwright have arrived in Oxford to put on a repertory production of a new play. One of the actresses, thoroughly disliked by pretty much everyone, is found dead, shot through the head at close range. The police are certain that it’s suicide, but Gervase Fen is convinced otherwise. The writing is delightful, light and joking, full of glorious turns of phrase and a very literary vocabulary (have your dictionary handy). The characters are all quite flawed and interesting and the action (and there is a lot of it) takes place over the course of a single week.

Is it a flaw of Generation X that we think we invented self-aware metafiction? This book is clear proof that we didn’t: it is full of winks at the audience and joyful tweaks of mystery conventions. The murder itself doesn’t happen until well into the book, with the author teasing the reader about it the whole time. Then our detective solves the murder and announces that he has done so to every character, but refuses say who the culprit is, with another third of the book still to go. Asin other golden-age mysteries, all the clues are available to solve the mystery, but the complexity of Crispin’s solution to this impossible crime may make you roll your eyes. But you know what? I enjoyed the ride so much that I didn’t care one bit.

Locked Room, Meet Deep Blue Sea

Dept. H Volume 1: Pressure by Matt Kindt. Dark Horse, 2017. 9781616559892. Contains Dept. H #1 – #6.

First, a word to describe Sharlene Kindt’s colors: fantastic. They perfectly accentuate and add to the sketchy energy of Matt Kindt’s drawings, and give a great sense of time and place whether the setting is a flashback, deep space, or far, far underwater.

Mia is sent to her father’s deep sea research station to solve his murder and to figure out who has been sabotaging its mission. The future of the world is dependent on its research (I think they’re trying to cure a disease that’s run amok). Everyone is a suspect: Lily (Mia’s childhood friend), Raj (her brother), Roger (her dad’s best friend), Aaron (research assistant), Q (tattooed head of security), Bob (weapons and demo expert), and Jerome (head of research). Mia fears nothing except the truth, that one of them is a murderer.

Her father’s body floats in a sealed-off section of the base, the scene of the crime. Then the base’s communication antenna is damaged and, in a danger-filled moment, so is Mia’s diving suit. There are giant deep sea creatures. Raj goes missing. Someone goes insane. Hatches are opened all over the base and it floods. And at one weird moment there’s some kind of specter.

It’s nonstop but somehow full of beautiful moments that made me go Wow, that’s what it would be like to be so far underwater.

No secret: I love books about sandwiches

The Sandwich Thief by André Marois, illustrated by Patrick Doyon. Chronicle Books, 2016. 9781452146591.

Marin’s parents are foodies and cooking maniacs. After being made fun of in the school cafeteria, Marin convinced them to only make him simple lunches, so his parents pick out delicious ingredients for his plain-looking sandwiches. Marin’s mom even makes her own mayonnaise. But now someone is stealing his sandwiches and leaving him hungry. Marin quickly makes a list of suspects and begins an investigation.

The book is a great combination of a humorous, realistic school story (Marin is horrified by the overworked principal’s lunch — a limp store-bought burrito he keeps in his desk drawer) and kid-style exaggeration (Marin’s mom buys special bread at a secret bakery run by kung fu monks). The illustrations are drawn with shapes and lines that show motion and character really well. They’re sometimes regular illustrations of the text and are sometimes mixed with the text like a comic. All give depth to a simple story showing a school that’s falling apart, students with big personalities, and a hundred other tiny details of Marin’s world.

ambuscades, burglarious, cachinnate, rodomontade

The Moving Toyshop: A Detective Story by Edmund Crispin. Walker and Company, 1946. 0802754341.

I was complaining to a co-worker about having to give up on two classic mysteries in a row because they were too dark. (I have to be in the right mood for a really gritty book.) He recommended a series featuring a crime-solving Oxford don and loaned me this book. (Thanks, Tom!) It turned out to be just right.

English professor Gervase Fen is a delightful sleuth: he has a keen, logical mind, a tremendously dry sense of humor, and drives his red sports car (named Lily Christine III) around Oxford like a maniac. His poet friend Richard Cadogan comes to Oxford on vacation. On his way into town late at night, he finds the door of a toyshop unlocked. He enters to let the shopkeeper know, makes his way to the apartment upstairs, and finds the body of an elderly woman who was strangled to death. The unseen killer knocks him out with a blow to the head. After Cadogan comes to, he escapes through a back window. When he brings the police to investigate, both the body and the toyshop are gone. The police figure he imagined it all because of his (very real) head injury. Fen thinks otherwise. Together they piece together the clues to a murder without a body.

The crime itself is a complex and baffling puzzle. Even the suspects comment that it is an impossible murder, a locked-room mystery in an unlocked room. Several times I was convinced that I knew who had done it, only to have the evidence clear that person and a new suspect emerge. The solution brought everything together in a satisfying way. I am definitely going to follow the rest of Gervase Fen’s cases!

Both Fen and Cadogan are wonderfully eccentric, and they manage to gather quite a few odd characters to help them. My favorites were Wilkes, a hard-of-hearing elderly professor who always ends up near the liquor and beautiful women; an unnamed truck driver with a great appreciation for literature; and Mr. Barnaby, a student who interrupts his intellectual madeira-and-cake soiree to gather a mob of drunk undergrads and chase down a suspect. I found the book richly written and quite fun, with some lovely turns of phrase and a vocabulary that sent me to the dictionary quite a few times. There are many entertaining literary references including a plot point involving the poetry of Edward Lear, a pair of heavies nicknamed Scylla and Charybdis, and a running joke involving Fen half-starting a discussion about Measure for Measure every time he’s on the phone with the police.

Who Let the Spectral Dogs Out?

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle. Grosset & Dunlap, 1902.

A country doctor comes to Baker Street with a problem. His friend, Charles Baskerville, has died suddenly, apparently due to an ancient family curse: he was frightened to death by an unearthly demon dog. His heir, Henry Baskerville, may be in danger. The story starts off with the familiar scientific deductions of Sherlock Holmes, but then the detective sends Dr. Watson on his own to the family estate to keep an eye on the heir until Holmes can join them. Dr. Watson’s descriptions of the general spookiness of Baskerville Hall and the surrounding countryside turn the book into a haunting gothic romance, complete with neolithic dwellings, scary animal noises, and the Grimpen Mire: a deadly bog that can swallow a pony.

I really enjoy how different Watson is from Holmes. His point of view as the narrator turns these stories into exciting adventures, spooky ghost stories, and romances, much to the disgust of the no-nonsense Holmes. At the start of The Sign of Four, Holmes complains (about A Study in Scarlet): “Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science, and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid.” I think this is only a burn if you’re Holmes. Pretty sure I would snag a copy of this notional mathematical love story.

Mrs Vince Camden Written on a Pee Chee

Citizen Vince by Jess Walter. Harper Perennial, 2008. 9780061577659.

Sarah: So when you first talked about Book Wows, you pitched the idea to me as we grab a book from our collection and talk about why we love it. So this is the first book I thought about, but I didn’t want to start out with it. It’s almost too much for me to talk about. The book is Citizen Vince by Jess Walter.
Gene: OK!
S: It’s the first or second book by him that I read.
G: He was a journalist somewhere in Washington state, I think — he’s somewhat local, right?
S: He still lives in Spokane.
G: He used to work with my friend Jonathan. I was at a party at Jonathan’s house and he and another reporter talked about how Jess Walter had escaped journalism much like librarians talk about those who escape the library.
S: Walter and Sherman Alexie do this podcast together, it went on hiatus while Alexie was ill, but it’s rumored that it’s coming back. It’s so good: two really smart guys who are incredibly good writers interviewing other writers they like. It is the best way to get to know authors that you need to read.
G: So tell me about this book. Is it a mystery? Continue reading “Mrs Vince Camden Written on a Pee Chee”