Category Archives: Mystery/Thriller/Crime

The Lost Prophecies: Powerful Words

Six writers of historical mysteries and thrillers come together in The Lost Prophecies to imagine the far-reaching consequences of a book foretelling future events.  Five of the authors I’ve never read, Bernard Knight, Ian Morson, Michael Jecks, Susanna Gregory, and Philip Gooden; the sixth author is a favorite of mine, C.J. Sansom (he has a new book coming out in the new year and I will read it a.s.a.i.c.o — as soon as it comes out).  This book is fabulous: to quote a character from The Last Prophecies, “A combination of history, religion, and mysticism was like manna from heaven” to me.

The events prophesied in The Lost Prophecies originate in a small black book, laid out in enigmatic and beautifully lettered Latin: they are the ravings of a possessed orphan in sixth century Ireland.  Easily twisted around true events, the prophecies of the little black book seem to hold truth within their twists and turns.  Six mysteries of intrigue and treason, rebellion and murder result over two millenia and we the reader are brought to realize truly the power of the written word.

Not that I’ve ever doubted it.  The power of the written word, I mean.  The obvious proof is the Bible and the psalms, the hymns and the prayers that have survived centuries to lift spirits (or, worst case scenario, render fear and loathing). I prefer poetry and could hold up one great poem after another (The Lake Isle of Innisfree by Yeats, Stepping Backward by Adrienne Rich, Give All to Love by Emerson) as perfect examples of the power of the word; and of course, there is the prose poetry of playwrights and novelists.  Nor can we forget the power of the histories and biographies and autobiographies, past events portrayed this way and that way, pointed and counter-pointed.  And I will never deny the wonderful power of a good mystery to hold me captive, to keep me reading straight through the pleas of children and spouse, and way past a sensible bedtime, just get to the conclusion of who the heck dunnit.  But it is more than knowing who killed the victim and why, or who stole the parchment or sired the son or set fire to the church; I am enmeshed in lives outside of my own, I am involved and caring and have a stake in the people I am bringing to life in my mind, through the power of the well-rendered word.

That is the magic of good writing: draw in the reader and hold her absolutely still as she lives another world of lives and events and places and spaces in time.  The Lost Prophecies captivates as it moves through the past and forward in our our current century to a future of small but determined hope for mankind.  This book, like all captivating books, has its roster of heroes, good decent people who look for answers beyond (ironically) the written word and the popular lines and doctrines, people who find truth in their hearts, sustenance in their goodness, and knowledge through their very human failings.   Maybe such heroes are mythical but I don’t think so. We see something familiar in them, something to hope for and aspire to.

The power of words is in both their ability to mirror our existence (the gossipy comfort of eavesdropping, self-affirming perhaps but more than that, interesting and  provocative) and to present a bigger vision of our possibilities, of what we can be, how we can love and flourish ourselves, and how we can sustain and encourage others.  Books are not about lonely existence, just because we usually read them silently and alone.  Books are a strong and resilient cord between humans,  an event to discuss and share, to create bonds.  Two people from different continents can connect over a book, a group can gather and discuss a book and transform their thoughts, their energies, their patience and their humor and their charity.  A man in New York City can exclaim in shared compassion with a woman from suburban Salt Lake City or New Delhi or Brisbane; a connection forged by words put down by a determined writer.  Amazing.  The power of words, in plays, in poetry, in novels and songs and sermons, is truly amazing.

Double Dutch Murder Mysteries

Okay, (that’s “k-o-k”, Dekok) I just read a Baantjer mystery featuring Inspector Dekok, Murder by Installment (published in 2007).  Now I can compare the two giants of Dutch mysteries, A.C. Baantjer and Janwillem van de Wetering.

I really enjoy the Baantjer series involving the cranky, persistent, and intelligent Dekok, and he is wildly popular in Holland.  This book was similar to the others in the series with its twists and false conclusions, and with its characters from high and low Dutch society.  As usual, Dekok finds out the truth and metes out justice as he sees fit; he shames the chief of the Warmoes station (a blundering bully), nails the perp, and lets an associated guilty party go free (after all the victims were scum and the woman has a future of helping others –really).

Dekok has a soft spot for soft criminals, misled ladies, and for cognac and croquettes.  The charm of these books is found in the hero, the recurring supporting cast,  and in the quality of the police procedural: we enjoy following the case, with its dips and high points and the occasional pain in the feet that signifies Dekok is having trouble.

Van de Wetering’s mysteries follows a different course, with the “who did it” less important that the “why” and the overarching question of what does it all matter? It matters because justice prevails, even if the course of justice takes generations and even if lives must be paid for the justice to finds its way.

There is more humor in Baantjer (and more entertainment) and more angst in de Wetering (and more provocation of deep thinking).  So take your pick, some mind bending (Baantjer) or some mind altering (de Wetering): both are good reads.

Question:  why are there no great detective series from Belgium? Hercule Poirot is Belgian (always mistaken for French) but he is of course from the mind of the great English writer Agatha Christie.  Antwerp is a perfect setting for murder and mayhem and mixed motives.  Unlike Holland, where everything goes but under strict laws governing the freedom of everything from drugs to prostitutes, in Belgium the illicit is indeed lawless; it is ungoverned,  under the table, and anarchic.  Doesn’t that make for great and engaging crime, the kind of crime that makes a good mystery?  So we need a Belgian to step up to the plate, write a mystery set in Ghent or Antwerp or on the shore, sophisticated Knokke or more earthy Nieuwpoort.  Let me know!  If no one offers, maybe that will be my next project, after my year of reading 365 books.

Janwillem van de Wetering: The Zen of Dismemberment

Yesterday I read a truly bizarre but in the end thoroughly engaging mystery. The Hollow-Eyed Angel by Janwillem van de Wetering (published in 1996) features a retiring (literally, less than a month to go) Police Commissaris (head guy of the local police station)  who is pushed into an investigation of the grisly death of a fellow Netherlander, long emigrated from Holland to New York City.

What unfolds is strangely told, with narratives swinging back and forth between Amsterdam and New York, past and present, differing viewpoints and points made about everything from sex to Zen Buddhism to persecution and survival.  The story is told through various modes, straight narrative mixed up with snatches of poetry and dream sequences; there are characters ranging from the sick and hurting Commissaris to his buff and mustachioed colleague, a Haitian voodoo woman, a Mexican seer, an American mounted policewoman, a Polish philosopher, an American drug dealer, transvestites and Mad Max and a couple of gay hairdressers.

The scenes seem to make no sense at times but all the pieces fit together.  There is one long drawn-out red herring hunt that actually turns up what is, in the end, the unifying theme and the telling clue of whodunit.

The theme is punishment: punishment wielded and sought, punishment delayed and denied, punishment warranted and yet never granted, thereby removing any hope of the mercy that justice can grant a perpetrator.

The author studied Zen Buddhism and it shows:

Am I the only one who knows that this is about the void, that there is neither wisdom nor any attainment, that there is nothing to attain, that there are no obstructions and therefore no fear, that there is no ignorance, and no ending of ignorance, no suffering, and no path, and here we pretend to sit around being busy?

The book is very busy — no pretending —  and full of thoughts and movements and cross-purposes.  I liked it.

I chose this book because I thought it was one in another series I’ve enjoyed, the Inspector DeKok mysteries by A.C. Baantjer.  His books are great and his inspector is also rheumatic and phlegmatic and wise.  I will read more Baantjer and also more of the Grijpstra and de Gier mysteries of van de Wetering.  In truth, I think I like the Baantjer better; I’ll read one today and let you know tomorrow.

Brunetti In Venice, Forever

Yesterday I read Wilful Misbehaviour (published in 2002) by Donna Leon.  Leon writes wonderful but dark mysteries.  There is rarely a happy ending, and only occasionally is justice adequately rendered for the crime committed and then investigated. Leon’s books are so good both because of crime-solver Commissario Brunetti and his charming family, and for the always complex moral and factual investigation that Brunetti forces himself through in trying to bring justice.

Commissario Brunetti’s family provides the lightness in these heavy mysteries.  He has a compatible and loving wife and he’s a good husband; their kids are smart and kind teenager who show up for meals and eat the food offered. I would too, given the great meals Paola cooks up twice a day without complaint (despite the fact that she is a professor of English literature at the University — she uses the wisdom of Henry James and others to help her husband with his cases). The couple drink great wine in moderation and have no marital, sexual, emotional, or any other kind of family problems. Okay, so the Leon books offer a fantasy escape: this is a reason to read them.

Another reason to read Leon’s books is Commissario Brunetti, the main character, and the situations he finds himself in. Brunetti investigates horrible crimes and tries for justice in a system that is skewed at best.  He is brooding, intelligent, kind, incorruptible but willing to work the system (bend it if necessary) to achieve greater good in the world and a semblance of justice.  He takes long walks around Venice to work things out in his mind or in an effort to forget them altogether.

The crimes in Leon’s mysteries usually involve violent death connected to a deeper, even uglier history. In this novel, the history of Venice during World War Two is brought out, when certain Venetians profited from the sufferings of others, in particular from the selling off of art works owned by families fleeing persecution and death. Questions of morality and responsibility are always present in Leon’s novels, including in this one, and we also are treated to Brunetti’s intense inner thoughts and discussions trust  among friends and family, family duty versus duty to mankind, the role of religion in providing moral guidance, and its too-often failure to do so.

Just writing this review makes me want to start another one of Leon’s novels.  I’ve read them all now but each is worth re-reading, both for the fantasy escape of living in Venice and from the intellectual stimulation provided by her fascinating, morally complicated, and very real plots.

I’ll end with a quote, taken from a scene when Brunetti is considering  the importance of having people in your life whom you can trust: Brunetti wants trust without judgment passed.  How many of us are capable of receiving the worst of one of our friends and still holding them dear, and holding their secret safe?  Brunetti says: “...if we don’t find at least someone we can trust absolutely, then, well, we’re made less by not having them.  And by not having the experience of trusting them.”  He knows “he would be a lesser man if there were no one into whose hands he would put himself.”  But we can only trust someone like that if we ourselves are capable of that action, because how can we believe anyone else is trustworthy if we are not?  The conundrum of the novel, the mystery to be solved.

Great Francis Formula

Wow!  Dick Francis has done it again in Silks (published in 2008). For years Francis turned out books that were great fun, thrilling mysteries set in the racing world.  After his wife died, Francis announced no more books would he write, that her companionship and help had been too instrumental to his work.  Thankfully after a few years Francis realized that his books are the greatest tribute he could make to her; with his son Felix Francis, he co-wrote Dead Heat. Truly, that book was not so good.  So it was with much trepidation that I read the latest mystery co-written by father and son, and I am very happy to say that it is right up there with some of Francis’ best novels.

To Francis fans, Silks continues with the well-used formula we have come to love:  corruption in the racing world, either in business or in personal life, and the man who just cannot let it go; the man is a self-deprecating but thoroughly heroic hero; the female love interest is wholesome but plucky, good looking but modest, sometimes frightened but always loyal; the plot twists and turns on questions of identity and responsibility; anonymous threats propel action; just when you thought you could take a breath and relax, there is a final encounter between good and evil; and all in all the story is well-told with a satisfying ending and all nastiness taken care of.  This book adds in a resolute action by the hero that is spine chilling and cracking, and quite gratifying as well.

Other Dick Francis favorites of mine: Longshot, Banker, Hot Money, Bolt, Proof, Twice Shy,  Reflex, and Whip Hand. I did not like the short stories in Field of Thirteen.