Monday, October 16, 2006

What came before he shot her

New Elizabeth George an odd prequel
Her 14th Scotland Yard novel treats events leading to the 13th. An intriguing premise fails to develop.
What Came Before He Shot Her
By Elizabeth George
HarperCollins. 560 pp. $26.95
Reviewed by Maxine Clarke
Every crime-fiction book succeeds or fails on its denouement - the moment of discovery when the villain is revealed and the mystery solved. And the most important rule for a crime-fiction reviewer is: Don't give away the ending.
Elizabeth George is the author of a baker's dozen novels featuring Scotland Yard detective Thomas Lindley and four associates. The books are interesting character studies as well as cleverly plotted, and deserve their commercial success. One reason I like them, presumably unintended by the American author, is that they portray a Neverland Britain - a country where Lord Peter Wimsey still exists and where forensic science is the province of independently wealthy amateurs.
In With No One as Witness, the unlucky 13th (and previous) book in the series, one of the core characters is shot. Reviewers did their duty and did not reveal the victim's name. In George's new book, What Came Before He Shot Her, the intriguing premise is to describe the events leading up to the shooting from the perspective of the perpetrators. So how review this book without "spoiling" the previous one? And how convey how the new book culminates in such an infuriating disappointment without giving away the crux of it, too?
In her previous books in the series, George has not provided a linear narrative between novels. She's varied the settings and the issues, relating each novel from the viewpoint of different characters among the core five. And the books have real emotional depth. Missing Joseph, for example, is as moving and insightful an account of infertility as I have read anywhere. Yet the next book in the series barely features this character at all, instead covering other players and a story about the intricacies of test-match cricket. For the Sake of Elena contains an intense subplot about Helen's sister's post-natal depression - but this is barely even mentioned in passing in future books. It is as if George worries a subject to death, gets bored with it, and moves on.
What Came Before is a letdown. I wanted to like it, but could not identify with any of the characters, who are either stupid, or only able to see as far as satisfying their next impulse, or opportunistic. The three abandoned children pivotal to the events are so hopelessly abused and stunted by their ghastly early life that they are but passive observers of their own misery from page one (literally). There is poignancy in their hopeless situation, but the long series of disconnected vignettes that constitutes the book creates an unconvincing whole.
The book is a narrow and claustrophobic portrait of the people who live at the "bottom," who have no knowledge of or care about the wider world they live in because it has been beaten or squeezed out of them: No interest in education, no opportunity to learn or read, unrealistic expectations, and desperate poverty. Yet as an attempt at psychological insight about the inevitability of the fate of these damaged children, abandoned by selfish parents and unreachable by anyone in the caring professions, the book fails.
In previous books, one could smile at the unintentionally anachronistic moments in the lives of Thomas, Helen and Simon (Deborah, and particularly Barbara, are far more realistic). But the new book portrays a relentlessly miserable collection of humanity. The bloopers are thus harder to indulge. Major plot developments flop because, for example, nobody has heard of free bus passes or welfare benefits. This is simply not believable. And the book is riddled with such implausibilities.
George certainly has an ear for dialogue and the inner voice of her characters, but the characters in this book do not exist in a cohesive environment, but rather in a series of disconnected scenes that ignore whole chunks of their lives. Some of these scenes work better than others: Vanessa shoplifting in the Queensway shopping mall is spot-on. But others don't: 12-year-old Joel as a mature, instant poet of full-blown genius is ridiculous.
There is, at long last, a denouement of sorts, involving a cold manipulator acting out of pique over a personal rejection. But we do not discover any answers to questions stimulated by the previous book. Why was that particular victim targeted for the titular shooting? What underlies the ruthless coldness of the villain? We aren't told the answer to these and many other questions. And without familiar characters for sustenance, readers are, like the characters in the book, left out in the cold.

Maxine Clarke is a science editor for the journal Nature. Her Web log Petrona is at

Philadelphia Inquirer Sun 15 October 2006

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Through a glass, darkly

Mystery features life in Venice, death in a glass factory

Jun 04, 2006

Reviewed by Maxine Clarke

Through a Glass, Darkly

By Donna Leon

Atlantic Monthly Press. 256 pp. $23

Donna Leon's 15th book to feature Commissario Guido Brunetti is, as we have come to expect, a superb evocation of life in Venice - with crime somewhere in the background.

Leon's books are short. This one is barely more than 250 pages, and the murder does not happen until halfway through. Though the mystery of who and why is known by the end, the details of the process of apprehending the criminal are not addressed. Nor, when the body is found, is there any need for gruesome depiction of the event - although the death was a gory one. Yet the story is no less involving: an object lesson in minimalism.

The evocation of Brunetti's life as a senior policeman, husband and father in this, the most beautiful city in the world, is so confident and assured that one is drawn in from the opening two paragraphs - a description of springtime - and does not emerge until the last few pages, a lovely vignette about a Venetian boatman.

In between, the theme is the contrast between new and old. Environmentalists are agitating about the effects on fragile Venice of pollution from the industrial plants of Marghera. But what of the older threat from the traditional glassmaking factories of Murano? Is there any truth to the apparently delusional obsession of night watchman Signor Tossini, who is convinced that his young daughter's illness results from activities there? The plot is a showcase for descriptions of the process of glassblowing and the beauty of the finished product.

No Leon book would be complete without the background of political corruption and bureaucracy for which Italy is famed - though they are mere hints in this particular outing, rather than major plot elements. Official police investigations, so riddled with the politics of necessity, get nowhere. Brunetti's approach - essentially simple interest in his fellow man - provides solutions.

Brunetti is one of the most attractive policemen in crime fiction today. He is of no fashion or era - this book, for example, features his interest in Dante's Inferno (including some lovely passages of translation and observation) and in nautical charts. He has no need of the Internet or Interpol, though GPS crops up and the cell phone is no less ubiquitous in Leon's Venice than everywhere else in the world. (I learn, to my delight, that a cell phone is called "baby telephone" - telefonini - in Italian; picking up occasional colloquialisms is one of the many pleasures of reading a Donna Leon book. )

As usual, the tension between Brunetti and his boss, Vice-Questore Patta, provides amusement: Brunetti has to anticipate Patta's attempts to block any police work that does not directly fit into his own plans for self-advancement. Patta's assistant - and my favorite character - the mysterious Signora Elettra, has a relatively minor role in the new book, though she is her usual efficient self and still seems to be the only person in the police department who has a computer or knows how to use it. (Brunetti continues, in 2006, leaving a note on a colleague's desk to ask to see him the next day, rather than sending an e-mail. ) There is, however, an unusual tension this time between Elettra and Brunetti, which I hope will be developed in a future book.

Brunetti's family is not center stage in this novel, either, though wife Paola (in my opinion the least successful character) is - again as usual - holding down a job as a senior academic, has complete empathy with her children, cooks fantastic meals from scratch, does not offer a word of reproach when her husband forgets to come home to eat them, and still has time to attend gallery openings. I suppose paragons like Paola exist, but I haven't met any. I did smile in recognition, however, when Paola calls Brunetti at work, and he, being in the middle of a train of thought, momentarily forgets who she is.

I struggle to think of other series authors who are as dependable as the excellent Leon: Hazel Holt springs to mind. Holt's books, also short and pared-down, combine a common-sense investigator with restrained yet pointed social comment, and each one is reliably up to the standard of the last. Leon's have an additional dimension beyond the immediate solution to the crime. I finish a Leon book feeling not only that I have read a satisfying detective story, but that I know what life in Venice is like for the ordinary people who live and work there.

Maxine Clarke is an editor for the science journal Nature. She can be reached at [Correction:]

Published in the Philadelphia Inquirer 4 June 2006.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Mercy Seat

Carrying not coals to Newcastle, but hard-boiled, U.S.-style crime
Apr 12, 2006

The Mercy Seat
By Martyn Waites
Pegasus. 421 pp. $25
Reviewed by Maxine Clarke

Ask anyone who has heard of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne to name the connection with the city that springs to mind, and in all likelihood the reply will feature the soccer team Newcastle United; or the "lovable rogue" Geordies epitomized by the TV series Auf Wiedersehen, Pet; or Get Carter starring Michael Caine - possibly Britain's most famous and hardest-boiled gangster movie until The Long Good Friday (itself usurped by Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels).

It is this territory that is claimed by Martyn Waites in his new novel, The Mercy Seat. Originally from Newcastle, Waites has lived mostly in London as an actor (playing villains, usually), and turned to writing novels some years ago. He is an admirer of such U.S. crime-fiction writers as James Ellroy, James Lee Burke, Andrew Vacchs, and Sara Paretsky, and aims to bring their approach to a particular place in Britain. He has chosen Newcastle as a counterpart to the Chicago of Paretsky, the New York of Vacchs, the L.A. of Michael Connelly.

The Mercy Seat has multiple plot strands: The main character is an ex-journalist called Joe Donovan whose young son disappeared some time in the past, and who as a consequence has left his job and gone to live in depressed seclusion and squalor in a small, isolated cottage in the north of the country.

Another strand concerns a young "rent boy," Jamal, who has stolen a tape that everyone, including a man with a sapphire embedded in his front tooth, is desperate to get back. Then there are the mysteries of the missing scientist; of what two strange surveillance agents are up to; of why the newspaper's lawyer is so keen for Joe to come out of his self-imposed retirement to help find a missing colleague. Atmosphere is provided both by Waites' knowledge of the geographical area, and by his strong writing about the unhappy lives and histories of abandoned and abused children living on the streets.

The last (and only) book of Waites' that I read was his first novel, Mary's Prayer. In many ways the earlier book is a rehearsal for The Mercy Seat, featuring similar plot, characters and themes. But while Mary's Prayer was stilted, cliched and unbelievable, The Mercy Seat convinces. Until about halfway through, it is readable enough but nothing special. But at the beginning of part 3, it gets you. It's a fantastic and rare moment: You can feel the author's grip tightening, the emotions driving various characters weaving the plot into cohesion. Thankfully, the final revelation of the core "mystery," so often the stumbling block for this type of fiction, seems realistic (in context) and believable.

Is Newcastle really the dangerous place depicted by Waites, replete with drug dealers, child abusers, corrupt police and thugs not shy about beating anyone up at the drop of a hat - or using the eponymous mercy seat (from the song by Johnny Cash about the death-row prisoner)? Well, I don't know. You wouldn't know it to go there, but then if you went to Nottingham you wouldn't see what John Harvey's Resnik sees; Rebus' Edinburgh is a perception of Ian Rankin; and London's seamier side is the territory of so many writers that one is surprised not to be constantly tripping over last night's bodies on the way to work in the morning.But the important feature of Waites' environment is that the reader can suspend disbelief and be carried along by the plot (which has a few holes, but I'm not complaining). And, as in the very best crime fiction, one can "learn" something on the journey. Events may be exaggerated, but in the process Waites highlights injustices from his personal knowledge of offenders in prison, victims of child abuse, and socially excluded teenagers.I'm glad that Joe Donovan will return in a sequel, The Bone Machine, next year.

Maxine Clarke is a crime-fiction enthusiast who lives in Surrey, England. She is an editor at the scientific journal Nature. Visit her blog, Petrona, at

This review was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Monday, October 02, 2006

The man who smiled

Nabbing the villain is the weakest part of a strong book

The Man Who Smiled
By Henning Mankell
Translated by Laurie Thompson
The New Press. 325 pp. $24.95
Reviewed by Maxine Clarke

Inspector Kurt Wallander of the police force in Ystad, Sweden, has killed a man, and has spent more than a year on sick leave, unable to continue with his work. At the start of The Man Who Smiled, he finally decides to quit. But that very day, he discovers that an acquaintance, Sten Torstensson, who has recently asked him for help, has been murdered, which leads him to change his mind.
Henning Mankell's Wallander books are mainly about character - the characters of the police force, that is, not of the criminal mind. The reader knows from almost the first page that an apparent suicide, Torstensson's father, was in fact murdered. Not only this, but how and by whom. Yet it is not until one-third of the way through the book that the police are sure that the first death was in fact a murder. And only after another 100 pages, two-thirds of the way through, do they realize who is responsible. The strength of the book is to draw the reader into the police investigation, trying like them to tie the clues and threads together into a coherent picture. Nothing much happens until the last 50 pages.
Why is this book so compelling? In a word, the character of Wallander. This is a man who approaches his work like an academic: "So much police work is dull routine, but there could occasionally be moments of inspiration and excitement, an almost childish delight in playing around with feasible alternatives."
Wallander is not the policeman of crime-fiction cliche who tries to solve the mystery on his own without collaborating with colleagues, nor is he the type who can be persuaded to do anything for expediency. He just follows his own stubborn course. So the heart of the book is the inner life and thoughts of this unromantic, fiftyish man, and how he doggedly convinces first himself and then his colleagues and superiors that there is a thread to follow, a thread that will lead to an answer. The satisfaction of the book comes from a description of this exercise of the mind, not from any thriller or graphic elements.
Wallander spends much of the book following slight leads, not letting any of them, however tenuous, go. A typical example is when a person tangential to the investigation is found to have committed suicide some time ago, in a different part of the country. Wallander visits the victim's boss, who barely knew him, but provides the information that the previous boss had retired after many years' service. So Wallander visits the retired man. He knocks on his door out of the blue and asks to talk to him. The witness replies: "I'm an old man, tired but not yet quite finished. I admit to being curious. I'll answer your questions, if I can."
This leads to the first major break in the case, and pretty well sums up the pared-down, unsentimental style of these books. Later in the story, Wallander is interviewing a young woman journalist: "They both worked on investigations, they both spent their time constantly running up against crime and human suffering. The difference was that she was trying to expose crime to prevent it happening, while Wallander was always occupied in clearing up crimes that had already been committed."
Mankell is not writing "mere" genre fiction, but about the sadness of the human condition.
Eventually, Wallander gets his man. To me, this was the least satisfactory part of the story. After setting up the situation in which Sweden is changing after the assassination of Olof Palme, becoming a younger country with a different type of criminal and hence a different type of policeman (or -woman), the book peters out. Wallander finds himself in a standard "hero in peril" situation, and although the villain is apprehended, I found this unconvincing - indeed almost self-induced. The plot also depends on the villain's being ruthlessly efficient at dispatching people without leaving clues, but then suddenly becoming strangely inefficient at this task.
But do not be put off from reading this book, which is excellent. For an unknown (to me) reason, Mankell's books have been translated into English in non-chronological order. The Man Who Smiled is the fourth Wallander story of eight. I have read the others, and would probably not have read this one had I not been asked to review it, as I know what happens in subsequent books. That would have been a mistake, not least because this is the book in which policewoman Ann-Britt Hoglund makes her debut. I commend the New Press ( for publishing this as well as other Mankell novels and nonfiction works in translation.

Maxine Clarke is a science editor for the journal Nature. Her Web log Petrona is at

Review at Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday 17 September 2006