It may seem odd to re-read mystery books, the point of which is to give clues toward an ending. Why re-read a book when you know the solution to the problem which is the point of the book? I don’t re-read lots of mysteries. There are loads of mystery writers that I like and read who aren’t represented on my list of Books I Have Read Three Times Or More, simply because I haven’t re-read them. Most of Val McDermid’s books I have not re-read, but I’ve read Killing the Shadows 5 times. Why this one and not the others? you may ask. Of course I’m happy to tell you.
1. I like Fiona Cameron. As I write about the books I re-read I’m finding that characters count for a lot in the books that I choose to re-visit. If I like the characters I tend to go back. If I don’t like the characters, I don’t. There are other factors as well, but this one is key. This is the only one of McDermid’s books in which Fiona Cameron is the main character. Dr. Cameron (another female academic, spot a trend anyone?) appears in two other books, as a background character (The Distant Echo), and in an off-screen consulting role (Fever of the Bone). I hope that FC will show up in another book as a main character but so far no luck.
2. I do love the story — mystery writers get knocked off using the methods written about in their books. Oh the deviousness of it all. This also means that writers are important characters in the story, and the writing process is discussed as it relates to these characters. I do enjoy that as well.
3. There is something about the way this particular book is written that draws me in. It starts with FC working at a serial murder case in Toledo in Spain (very interesting case) that you think might be the main point of the story, but that just ends up being an introduction to the key characters. The particular bit I like in the early part of the book is FC settling into work with the data provided by the police in Toledo — with a large carton of coffee. My kind of academic detective consultant. The action doesn’t really kick in until after the Spanish trip is over. And the action when it gets going really ramps up. This is one suspenseful book, very tightly written, and intelligently put together. 1Mom liked it very much for all of those reasons when I passed it to her earlier this fall.
McDermid is of the writers I now follow so that I can read their current books. Two of hers have been published this year, and I’m feeling behind because I haven’t read either yet. I’m looking forward to both. Most of the books include aspects of the psychological thriller as well as the police procedural. This can clearly be seen in the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan books — where Tony is the psychological profiler and Carol is the police detective. I got hooked on these reading The Wire in the Blood. Start there if you dare. “Wire in the Blood” is also the title of a British TV series based on the Hill and Jordan characters. (It stars Robson Green which is reason enough to watch it if you can find it.)
McDermid’s books tend to be dark and not very hopeful at times — I think I like Killing the Shadows because it has a lighter touch than some of her others. I enjoy reading them all, but KtS is the one I return to. It is probably that grace thing again.
Yesterday I suggested that Cryptonomicon is History-With-A-Twist. It has recognizable historical events in it — the Hindenburg disaster, WW2, Pearl Harbour and all that. It includes historical figures as characters, Alan Turing and Douglas McArthur prominent among them. It has places you can visit — Manila, London, Tokyo, Seattle. But it also has funny glitches that mark it as Not-Quite-History. There are places and people and happenings that are fictional, things that couldn’t quite be so.
While Cryptonomicon is obviously set in a (mostly) familiar history, Tigana is not quite as clearly based in history. It is more a fantasy novel, placed somewhere utterly foreign, somewhere that is clearly not this planet. Yet something resonates somehow. The story is set on a peninsula called the Palm, which reminds the reader (well me anyhow) in a vague way of an Earthly peninsula shaped like a boot. Once this connection is made, the names in the book start to sound Italian; the pronunciation guide at the beginning of the book uses Italian words as examples. A re-reading of the Acknowledgements makes the connection crystal clear — the author wrote part of the book in Tuscany. Tigana is generally classified as Fantasy, but Guy Gavriel Kay, the author, writes fantasy based on history. Tigana was one of his early works, and I think one of his best. It evokes the loss of culture that comes with invasion, the loss of a sense of home that an occupying empire brings, and the importance of remembering for identity. It also contains that elusive element of grace that I seem to be fond of.
It seems that if I were going to write historical fiction, I would lean toward alternative history — something with a twist. I’m not sure whether I lean most toward working with the kinds of minor twists found in Cryptonomicon or the much larger twists of Tigana which require imagining a completely new world loosely based on some kind of history. In some ways the completely other world could be easier — I could do whatever I wanted in that new world. But the minor twists present an interesting challenge — is the alt.history believable? Could it really have happened that way?
Neal Stephenson writes hard-to-classify books, all having to do with economics, history, and technology in some kind of combination. I’ve heard seen Stephenson’s writing called “Baroque“, and I find the description helpful; do with that what you will. In terms of genre, I don’t think most people would call Cryptonomicon historical fiction, though it does have historical elements. I’ve found Cryptonomicon in the regular fiction and science fiction sections of bookshops. I’d say it is a thriller, but it doesn’t quite move as quickly as most thrillers do. Let’s just agree that the book is History With A Twist.
I first heard of Stephenson from a student back when I tutored mathematics for income while at Seminary. This student said to me: “You like reading and computers, right?” I agreed that I did. “And you are into religion, right?” Yes, also true. “You’ve gotta read this book, Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. It is awesome.” The kid was right. It IS an awesome book. It took me a while to find it as I was looking for a book by someone called Neil Stevenson, but eventually I got the picture. Then I started reading Stephenson as he (slowly) produced new material. Cryptonomicon (1999) starts in WW2 but it also jumps forward to the present/near future. It is a very long book, and while you can easily see that the characters in the WW2 segment are related to the characters in the present/near future (the last names are a giveaway), it isn’t clear exactly how the whole thing is going to come together. I had no idea at all where this was going the first time I read it. It becomes clearer with each re-reading, and so it has the hallmarks of good literature (according to Lewis). Cryptonomicon is connected to Stephenson’s Baroque Trilogy, more clearly historical fiction, which includes Isaac Newton of physics fame as a key character. Stephenson’s brand of history is history with a twist. I’m not sure how else to describe it. There is a thread of the fantastic that runs through both the trilogy and Cryptonomicon which is hard to describe. That fantastic thread is not really ever resolved or clarified. It remains a mystery to both the characters in the book and to the reader. It makes the whole thing much more interesting.
I’ve read Cryptonomicon 6 times, far more than I’ve re-read any other Stephenson book. This one appeals because it is full of grace, has really interesting things to say about theology and redemption, and takes me to the places described. And I like the characters and want to spend time with them again. The tech element in the book is mostly about codes an code-breaking and computation power. The key characters are mostly geeks, though there are also USMC-type soldier and ex-soldier characters. One of the Marines also writes haiku. And is named Bobby Shaftoe. This is appealing to me. The history element is set in an alternative WW2 (no atom bombs in the story), and the economics has to do with gold and backing currency. Read it — but remember, it takes a certain amount of patience. You’ll find out where it goes eventually, trust me.
A few days ago I was all pumped to write this post. Then I started re-reading a Grisham book I hadn’t read in a while. In fact, I think this is the first time I’ve re-read The King of Torts, and, to be perfectly honest, it turns out not to be my favourite Grisham of all time. It is suspenseful, but it is the just-how-badly-is-this-character-going-to-crash-and-burn sort of suspense instead of the are-they-going-to-pull-this-off sort of suspense that I prefer in Grisham books.
My favourite Grisham (in case you hadn’t figured it out from the title) is The Runaway Jury. RJ is a great will they pull this off kind of book. If you’ve seen the movie, purge that from your mind before reading the book. The adaptation totally changes the court case, and IMHO, kills the story. I don’t think you could possibly win the kind of suit filed in the movie, but the suit filed in the book seems possible. I like John Cusak and Gene Hackman, and I thought they were well cast for the movie, but was disappointed in the way the story was changed.
Ok, enough about the movie. I really like the book because it takes me to a location that I can picture. It creates the world of the Gulf Coast of Mississippi in my head. I go back to it because I want to walk with Nicolas to the courthouse early in the morning and get a coffee at the deli on the way. I re-read it for the lunch scene in the restaurant on the opening day of the trial. The sense of place is very strong. I also love the characters. And I love the twist that you aren’t actually sure who the main character is. Who are you supposed to be cheering for? It isn’t really clear. And I like that.
There are some Grisham novels that interact fairly directly with theology (see particularly The Testament, The Last Juror, and The Confession). All of his novels do reflect on what it means to live well. Living well doesn’t always mean having the most cash though. Watch for that catch. Some of the characters in his novels think that is what defines living well, but it is quite clear that Grisham does not agree. Not all Grisham characters are redeemed either. I think that is also what I like. There is always an element of grace in his books, but not everyone accepts the grace that is offered.