Tuesday, May 3, 2011

(No.150) Novels: a refuge from the miseries of life

Somerset Maugham thought that to acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.

I don't know that I would go all the way along with Maugham's metaphor but I certainly have made it a lifelong habit to immerse myself in books, fiction and non-fiction, that I enjoy. One test of a good novel is, for me, dreading to begin the last chapter because I have enjoyed it so much.

This is by way of being a preface to what I have done previously in columns on RickardsRead.com: share brief reviews of novels I have enjoyed recently. All are in print and almost all are available in softcover editions. While I do not suggest that all are equal in content or in their writers' skills, I list them because they are all worth reading -- and are pleasurable reading to varying degrees. For me such a recommendation does not require a belief that they are great or even moderately good literature. I tend to agree with G.K. Chesterton who thought that while literature is a luxury, fiction is a necessity.

The English novelist Barbara Nadel created a modern Turkish detective, Inspector Cetin Ikmen of the Istanbul police. He is of Albanian heritage on his mother's side and usually seems depressed and smokes heavily. He becomes involved with a complex range of cases in the city and beyond. In the dozen or so novels in the series thus far readers learn about Istanbul, Turkey and Turkish culture. The characters, the settings and even some of the plots are very different from the usual run of mystery/crime novels set in any of the countries in today's Europe. Try River of the Dead (2009).

Alex Gray, a novelist born and educated in Glasgow Scotland, has created a Glaswegian Detective Chief Inspector named William Lorimer. He is inevitably compared to Ian Rankin's justly famous Edinburgh depressive, misfit and sometime drunk D.I. John Rebus, one of the very best lead characters in this entire genre. I have long regarded Rankin's Rebus novels as ne plus ultra in the detective genre. However Gray's half dozen novels with Lorimer as the central character have gotten steadily better. Try Glasgow Kiss (2009).

Roberta Rich is a former Vancouver lawyer. Her first novel is The Midwife of Venice (2011). Set in 16th century Venice the focus is on a Jewish mid-wife reluctantly involved with (for her in the Jewish ghetto) a legally prohibited activity: assisting with gentile births. The plot revolves around her involvement, and its implications for her husband held for ransom in Malta, with an aristocratic Venetian family some of whose members are bad news indeed. Not exactly a crime novel but an excellent first novel.

The fifth in the series of English crime novels featuring Detective Chief Superintendent Simon Serrailler is The Shadows in the Street (2010). It exhibits once again the considerable talent of Susan Hill, a novelist who came late to writing books in the crime/mystery genre. She is the author of, among other works, the famous The Woman in Black, a play that has been running for years in London. Her novels in this Serrailler series involve the detective's family members and their relationships not just with him but with others, sometimes others also involved in crime. Hill's writing is a pleasure to read.

Beryl Bainbridge, who died last year, is an acclaimed English novelist with multiple nominations for the Booker Prize. Recently the organizers of the Booker recognized Bainbridge for her 5 nominations for their prize (but no wins) with a posthumous "best of" award. As the best of her 5 Booker nominated books, an online poll picked Master Georgie (1998). This novel begins in Victorian England and ends in the Russian Crimea of the 1850s during the Crimean War with England and France. Bainbridge's novel is a curious confection linking an English surgeon and amateur photographer, George Hardy, to a rather curious cast of mid-Victorian characters. It is not a crime novel per se although death looms large in the story. It is a very different sort of read but, as the Booker online poll suggested, one enjoyed by a great many people.

An historical crime/detective novel set in St.Petersburg in Dec. 1866, little more than a decade after the conclusion of the the Crimean War, features a Russian detective, Porfiry Petrovich, an investigating magistrate operating within the recently inaugurated legal regime in Czarist Russia. The English writer R.N.Morris created this chain smoking Russian and The Gentle Axe (2007) is well researched with an interesting and complicated plot set against the background of the reformed Russian regime and its implications for the police and for the investigation of crimes.

The penultimate novel in this column's book list is also set in Russia in the years both before the 1917 Communist Revolution as well as in the Soviet Union of the late 1930s. The central character is Inspector Pekkala, an investigator who was personally appointed by the last Czar to be his own detective and who would report to him directly. He was famous, almost mythical in Czarist Russia, and having survived a period of post-revolution exile to Siberia later came to take on a similar direct role for the dictator Joseph Stalin. The novel goes back and forth between these two time periods and regimes. While The Red Coffin (2011), the second novel in this series by Sam Eastland, is a more conventionally plotted detective thriller than most of the novels in this list, the settings and historical background provide it with a more exotic tone than might otherwise be the case.

Finally, the last book in this list is the latest in the series by the American Michael Connelly featuring Mickey Haller of The Lincoln Lawyer (the title of the first in this series and recently a movie). Connelly previously created Harry Bosch, the LA detective who was the central character in a long running series of crime novels and who, it was revealed in a recent novel, is Haller's half-brother, a fact neither of them knew but when they knew did not bring them -- a cop and a defence attorney with a mutual antipathy -- closer together.

The Fifth Witness (2011) sees Haller surviving the U.S. recession by doing volume legal work (still out of the trunk of his Lincoln -- hence his nickname) fighting home foreclosures by banks. This activity leads him to this novel's centrepiece: his defence of a foreclosure client charged with murdering an executive of the firm foreclosing on her home. Most of the novel is taken up with the preparation for and content of the trial and the behind the scenes activity. It is the sort of plot at which Connelly excels.

So entertaining is this novel that it is an example of that to which I alluded at the beginning of this column: arriving at its last chapter brings on regret for having reached nearly the end of the book.

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by: Alastair Rickard

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca