In Christopher Fowler's Peculiar Crimes Unit series, the PCU is the red-headed stepchild of London policing, despite the fact that its case clearance rate is stellar and its budget tiny. The PCU's unpopularity with the police and government establishment is largely due to its chief, Arthur Bryant. Bryant is an ancient, shambling man in shabby and soup-stained clothing who is fascinated by history, the occult, and odd phenomena, but lacks any people skills or ability to deal with the real world.
In Bryant's world, phones malfunction after being smothered by toffee melting in his pocket, important evidence is tainted or goes missing, and entire buildings may be accidentally destroyed. After losing track of his car countless times, his solution is to make a habit of parking it in places that make people really angry, since that means when he's searching for it, people will remember having seen it. His way of dealing with a potentially troublesome journalist is to pretend to show her an iron maiden torture device, lock her in it and stroll off, forgetting all about her.
Bryant's principal colleague and best friend is John May, who is as dapper as Bryant is disheveled, and spends much of his time smoothing over ruffled feathers after Bryant has unfortunately been allowed to speak to witnesses or superiors. Other members of the PCU staff register on the misfit scale too, just at a much lower level than Bryant.
In the latest PCU book, Bryant & May and the Memory of Blood, the PCU is called in on a horrific case of the murder of a theater producer's infant son while a party was in full swing downstairs. What puts this crime within the PCU's remit is its circumstances. The boy was throttled and thrown out a sixth-floor window without anyone having witnessed any part of the crime. The boy's nursery door was locked from the inside, but there is no evidence of a person having been in the room or left it. The crime scene is turned from puzzling to grotesque and eerie by the Punch puppet on the floor near the crib, and the fact that the impressions on the boy's neck match Punch's wooden hands.
While the rest of the PCU interview the party guests (all theater people), construct timelines and analyze alibis, Arthur Bryant immerses himself in the arcana of puppetry, stage props and devices, and the history of the theater and of London buildings. He consults with carnies and Wiccans, and even a Victorian automaton of the seer Madame Blavatsky.
Bryant has a few other matters to distract him along the way. He and his housekeeper are being evicted from their longtime residence immediately––actually, it's only "immediately" because Bryant has spent months successfully avoiding paying any attention to the notices and his housekeeper's warnings. On another front, Bryant is dismayed when the appealing young woman who is helping him with his memoirs is killed, and a CD of highly inflammatory and top-secret material culled from the memoir goes missing. To round off the distractions, hints begin to appear that someone in government is taking steps to discredit the PCU badly enough to force it to disband.
Bryant is convinced that a psychological drama is being played out by the staging of the murder and the use of the Punch puppet. The killer is trying to send a message––but what is the message, and for whom is it intended? Bryant's conviction grows as other guests at the party are murdered; their deaths also bizarre and apparently staged with reference to the Punch and Judy plays. As more time goes by with no solution in sight, Bryant risks it all on one throw of the dice. He will have his murderer by midnight or retire.
There is nobody like Christopher Fowler for combining dark, even horrifying, crime with comedy. Within seconds after wincing at a description of a crime scene, you may burst out laughing at one of Bryant's scathing quips.
Despite the contemporary setting and the use of modern forensic tools, PCU books harken back to classic mysteries, where a careful analysis of the clues and the suspects' movements––and the ability to spot red herrings and deceit––allow the reader to engage in the detection of the killer alongside the PCU team. Bryant & May and the Memory of Blood also provides the bonus of a great deal of information about the history of Grand Guignol plays and puppetry. I never had any particular interest in those subjects before, but I was fascinated. Now that's the sign of a masterful writer.
Tim Goodman is a wonderful choice to narrate this book. His choice of a voice for Arthur Bryant is delightful and will be in my head when I read a hard copy of the book.
This is the ninth book in the Peculiar Crimes Unit series, but if you haven't read the previous books, you'll be fine starting with this one. Bryant & May and the Invisible Code, the next book in the series, will be published in the UK in August, and it sounds too good to wait for the US publication.
Thirteen-year-old Theo Decker lives in a small, rent-controlled Manhattan apartment with his lively, loving mother. His alcoholic gambler father has abandoned them, and they scrape by on Theo's mother's pay from her art publishing job and Theo's scholarship to a tony private school.
When a right-wing terrorist group sets off bombs at the art museum Theo and his mother are visiting, everything is changed. His mother is killed and, as a result of a dreamlike encounter with a mortally wounded old man, Theo stumbles out of the ruins with a small masterpiece painting, Carel Fabritius's The Goldfinch, secreted in a bag.
You'll hear a lot of people compare The Goldfinch to a Dickens story, especially Oliver Twist, and it's hard to argue with the comparison. Theo is a Dickensian boy for the 21st century, whom catastrophe forces to live on his wits. Just when it appears Theo will land on his feet and be allowed to live with his school friend's wealthy WASP-y family, up pops his wastrel father and brassy girlfriend Xandra. You just know Pa Decker has some kind of angle here, and when he hustles Theo back to his house in a largely vacant mini-mansion development in Las Vegas, it's only a question of how closely the man's character will be to Dickens's Fagin or Bill Sikes.
More Dickensian characters abound in Theo's life over the next 14 years. Chief among them are Hobie, the kindly furniture restorer who gives Theo a direction in life; Pippa, the fragile object of Theo's yearning; and, best of all, Boris, a modern-day Artful Dodger. I'd give a lot to read a book about Boris, the motherless Ukrainian boy who moves from country to country with his largely absent mining company manager father. Boris is smart, outgoing, bighearted––but also a cheerful thief with a huge appetite for whatever drink, drugs and food he can get his hands on. Theo and Boris in Las Vegas are a couple of wild boys, and when Boris enters Theo's life again, years later, the wilding resumes.
One important difference between Theo and a Dickensian protagonist is that Theo is no pure-hearted young hero, overcoming adversity. Theo has concluded that life is a catastrophe, and he practically wallows in adversity. He courts and embraces misfortune and disaster until you almost want to give him a good slap and tell him to snap out of it.
Such a massive, sprawling, coming-of-age story runs the risk of plodding or feeling aimless, but aside from a brief lull in the middle of the book, The Goldfinch is spellbinding. Tartt takes us deeply into Theo's head and heart, his self-destructiveness and inability to overcome the loss of his mother, which is symbolized by his obsessive, guilty hiding of The Goldfinch, with its depiction of a tethered songbird.
I don't mean to imply that The Goldfinch is one of those books where the reader is required to mine through layers of symbolic meaning to discover the novel's essence. Not in the least. Donna Tartt isn't afraid to tell you straight out what the book is about. After taking the reader along on Theo's adventure, and allowing us to live inside his tortured soul, she spends her final pages tackling all that meaning-of-life stuff that most modern books are too cool to lay right out there. Given Theo's life experiences, a lot of it is pretty dark stuff, but Tartt is such a beautiful writer that she leaves the reader surging on a rising tide of wonder and something that comes close to joy.
About the audiobook: David Pittu, the reader, deserves praise for his virtuoso narration of The Goldfinch. Just reading such a long book aloud is an accomplishment, but Pittu also conveys every nuance of Tartt's writing, and his voices for the many different characters always feel true. He even expertly negotiates an Eastern European accent (for Boris), which is a common stumbling block for most narrators, who end up sounding like Rocky & Bullwinkle's Boris Badenov.
This is a collection of six short stories, each of which stands on its own, though there are some connections between them, and some characters are present in each story. The protagonist is, of course, Sidney Chambers, a Church of England canon in Grantchester, a bucolic village close to Cambridge University. Sidney's sideline is criminal investigation, via his friendship with Cambridgeshire policeman Geordie Keating.
Sidney is a mild-mannered man, but there is some spice to his life. He has two women in his life: Amanda, his longtime close friend, and Hildegarde, the German widow who he met in the first volume in this series, when her husband was murdered. In this volume, the stories range from the murder of a Muslim grocer to a close shave for Sidney when he visits Hildegarde in Germany just as the Iron Curtain is ringing down.
Author James Runcie is the son of Robert Runcie, the Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1980s, so he comes by his interest in churchmen honestly. In the website about the Sidney Chambers series, he writes that he plans to have six novels in the series, beginning in 1953 and ending in 1978, writing about a period in which there were vast changes in English society.
Runcie's strong suit is his ability to evoke the feel of the village and the university in the 1950s, so soon after the war's end. The book should be a rewarding experience for those who reading for atmosphere and storytelling. The avid mystery reader may be less pleased, because the crimes tend to be solved in a burst of exposition. There isn't the seeding of clues that allows the careful reader to figure out the whodunnit.
Avoid the audiobook! The reader, Peter Wickham, is terrible at women's voices. In particular, he makes Amanda sound like a little old woman, when she's supposed to be a wealthy young society woman.
Who says the Cold War is over? Sure, the Berlin Wall came down, the USSR is fractured, and Russia is no longer a communist state, but that doesn't mean the US isn't watching Russia very carefully––and vice versa.
Vladimir Putin, that old KGB operative and apparently now President-for-Life, has plenty of tricks up his sleeve––and I'm not talking about this week's news that he purloined Bob Kraft's Patriots Super Bowl ring. Vlad the Cad plans for Russia to return to being a superpower, and for that he needs excellent intelligence on the US government. Even more important for right now, he needs somebody to find out who is passing Russian secrets to the CIA's young agent, Nate Nash.
Enter Dominika Egorova, the former ballet dancer, turned into a spy by her conniving uncle, Ivan Egorov. Egorov, the slime, sends Dominika to "sparrow school," where Russian intelligence trains agents in the most effective techniques to seduce their targets. Nate is Dominika's target, and their dance begins. The first half of the story details this slow seduction and the development of Dominika's position within the Russian security apparatus.
It's unusual for espionage fiction to feature a female agent, but this is Dominika's story. She begins as a fervent nationalist, naïvely trusting that the servants of the motherland share her honor and devotion. Her own uncle's callously manipulative actions are just her first clues that Russian intelligence is a dangerous place. Dominika has some special help maneuvering through this snakepit. She has a form of synesthesia that gives her the ability to see colored auras around people that clue her into their real character or state of mind.
The second half of the story raises the stakes, as both sides play a no-limit game of Mole Hunt. The Russians need Dominika to get Nate to reveal their mole, while the Americans are in hot pursuit of someone highly placed in government who is funneling secrets to the Russians. Author Jason Matthews, a retired longtime CIA agent, constructs a a fiendishly clever plot, filled with characters painted in all shades of gray (or, for Dominika, yellow, brown, red, blue and purple), including one especially colorful love-to-hate villain.
Particularly for a debut novel, this is just a bang-up tale of modern espionage, with all the appeal of an old-fashioned Cold War yarn. Matthews does commit a few rookie errors. He uses too much alliteration in character names, he's not great with physical descriptions (what's a "willowy smile"?), Dominika's synesthesia can get a little gimmicky, and some plot elements rely on stupid mistakes.
More troublesome is Matthews' depiction of all FBI agents as jumped-up beat cops, and incompetent ones at that. I don't have any inside knowledge of the FBI, but the law of averages alone would suggest that it can't be 100% incompetent. No, this smells like a dramatization of the well-known animosity between the two agencies, told by a biased party, and it interferes with the story. Relatively speaking, though, my criticisms are nits. Matthews is a powerful storyteller and this is first-rate espionage fiction.
I don't want to forget to mention one of the most unusual aspects of the book. Every chapter ends with a recipe. Sure, we've all seen that plenty of times in cozy mysteries, but this is a first for me in serious espionage fiction. I've even made copies of some of the recipes and already prepared one of the dishes (a delicious soubise).
I hope Jason Matthews continues Dominika's story in future books––and keeps his readers stocked with new recipes.
ABOUT THE NARRATOR: Jeremy Bobb was an adequate reader, but no more. His pronunciation of Russian names and words wasn't good. His reading sounded like reading, too; he didn't bring the words to life.
After her father dies of pancreatic cancer, Julie Jacobsen's Long Island mother sends her––on scholarship––to Spirit In the Woods, a summer camp mostly populated by the artsy teen spawn of privileged Manhattanites. Julie is surprised to be adopted into a circle of kids above her sophistication level, appreciated for her acerbic wit and christened "Jules" by them.
In the self-styled "Interestings" group are sister and brother Ash and Goodman Wolf; son of a Joan Baez-ish folkie, Jonah Bay; and fellow scholarship camper and aspiring cartoonist, Ethan Figman. Ash, warm-hearted, beautiful and earnestly feminist, will become Jules's best friend. Ethan is awkward and goofy, but warmhearted and hugely talented.
All of the Interestings have ambitions; Jules expresses it as wanting to have a "big life." We follow the group from their teenage days, during the Watergate era, through to their middle age, and see what happens as they grow into their adult lives, some of which are far bigger than others––at least if you're measuring by name recognition and money. As the old saying goes, though, life is what happens while you're making other plans, and we see that play out in this story.
Anchored in its time and place, the tale spans the bad old days when Manhattan was filthy and crime-ridden, the beginning of the AIDS era, the Moonies, foodies, the rise (and fall) of the yuppie and the investment banker and 9/11. All the personal landmarks are the real story, though: career achievements and disappointments, marriage, children, friendship, loss, illness, death. Biggest of all, the slow growth of the idea that happiness, or at least satisfaction, can be found in a life that isn't so big or interesting.
Audio: Jen Tullock was not a good narrator. Her voice was nasal and she often delivered character voices were in an inappropriately whiny and singsong-y style. It was grating and detracted a lot from my enjoyment of the story. During the middle of the book, there was a long period when it sounded like she had a lozenge or gum in her mouth.
Bath, England's head homicide detective, Peter Diamond, isn't known for his interest in anything other than work, a pint and a pie. His girlfriend, Paloma, has to pull out all the stops to get him to take a weekend tourist trip to Vienna, tempting him by reminding him that it's the setting for his favorite film, The Third Man. A somber note is introduced when they come across the scene of an impromptu memorial to a young, Japanese woman found dead in the Danube canal; an apparent suicide.
Back home in Bath, Diamond's team is called in to investigate when another young Asian woman is found dead in a local canal. One of the very few clues to her identity is a "tooth tattoo" of a musical quaver, or eighth note, on her incisor. This musical connection brings the investigation to interview the members of the Staccati String Quartet, who are in residence in Bath.
The quartet's story is a parallel plot thread. The members are irascible first violin Ivan; earth mother and queen of the double entendre, cellist Kat; music-obsessed autistic, second violin Anthony; and new violist, Mel Farran. Mel is new because his predecessor, Harry, disappeared several years earlier in Budapest, when the group was on a central European tour, and is presumed dead.
Strange events in Mel's past, a mysterious new patron, and what looks to be a stalker put a dark cloud over Mel's joy at becoming a member of the prestigious quartet and collaborating with them at a higher musical level than he's ever known. The two plot threads--the quartet's story and Diamond's investigation--intertwine, as Diamond delves into the quartet's history to try to find out if there might be a connection between the two women's deaths, and maybe even Harry's disappearance. This history is complex and presents many avenues for exploration; there are even some subtle allusions to The Third Man in Diamond's quest for answers.
Unfortunately, the complexity of the plot unravels suddenly and leads to a fairly disappointing resolution. I can't say more without spoilers.
I've been a fan of Peter Lovesey's work since his first mystery, Wobble to Death, way back in 1970. The Peter Diamond series blends the best of old-fashioned fair-play mystery with the modern police procedural. I appreciate that Lovesey hasn't fallen into the ultra-violent and serial killer plots that have become so prevalent. He sticks to more realistic murders, which are explained by human emotions and circumstances, which I find far more satisfying---even if, in this particular case, I was underwhelmed by the conclusion.
I wouldn't recommend this as one of Lovesey's better efforts, but it won't prevent me from continuing to read Lovesey books as soon as they come out and recommending him to anyone who enjoys fair-play mysteries and low-violence police procedurals.
ABOUT THE READER: I was disappointed in Clive Anderson's performance. He had a mushy tone and didn't enunciate clearly, though his enunciation improved. He had odd hesitations in his dialog reading for almost all the characters, but especially the Mel Farran character. I thought he read Farran as being too hesitant and wimpy for the ladies' man Lovesey describes him as being. And the reading of the Kat character was awful. In the book, she's given to frequent double entendres and teasing, but Anderson voices her as some sort of nonstop Mae West, but with an absurdly deep, husky voice.
The persistent question about the Holocaust is how Germany, such a cultured, civilized nation, could decide––in the 20th century, no less––that the life of the nation depended upon wiping out all of Jewry. Littell confronts this dichotomy through the person of his narrator, Max Aue.
Aue is knowledgeable about and interested in art, literature, philosophy and, most of all, classical music. But he is also a mid-level SS functionary and a cog in the machinery of death. He observes and writes reports about the Einsatzgruppen mass shootings, and selections and crematoria in the death camps. He regularly meets with Heinrich Himmler, Adolf Eichmann, Albert Speer and other big names in the history of the Nazis' genocide.
Aue suffers severe gastrointestinal illness from his field work, but he never connects it to the horror of what he observes. He believes in National Socialism and the Final Solution. When he becomes friendly with a linguist who tells him that Nazi racial science is utter hogwash, Aue responds that he has been given something to think about and wishes to return to the discussion, but he is saved from the necessity when his friend is killed. Instead, he continues to plod along in his career path and blandly reports it all to us in this lengthy novel.
So what's it all about? I came to the conclusion that, in essence, this is a history of the management of the worst corporation ever. A corporation whose mission is the most spectacularly wrong-headed and horrific thing imaginable–––but whose failure to achieve its goal is attributable to those most prosaic banes of so many companies: office politics and the peter principle. All the various functionaries spend most of their time squabbling with each other for position or to try to achieve whatever they think the Führer's will is. Since they are all petty men of limited imagination and intelligence, of course it's all a complete schweinerei, as Aue likes to call it.
Does that mean this is another novel whose point is the banality of evil? Not exactly. Aue is not just some Aryan in an SS uniform. He is one screwed-up bizarro. He has a sexual fixation on his twin sister, with whom he had childhood incestuous relationship, broken up by his mother and stepfather. He often digresses from his tales of another lousy day at work into lengthy, hair-raising descriptions of violence, repulsive bodily functions and sexual perversions, real and imagined.
Littell is not the first author to try to connect Nazism with sexually-related mental illness. It makes a sort of sense. It's somehow easier to understand the Holocaust if we tell ourselves that those Nazis weren't like normal people; they were a bunch of sickos. But I think this detracts from the story.
Littell could lose all of the psychosexual and endless scatological stuff and have a much more powerful narrative. Aue's screwed-up psyche gets in the way of Littell's point that there isn't not, in fact, some bright-line difference between normal, ordinary people and those who can participate in unspeakable horrors. Littell does an excellent job of showing how Germans involved in the genocide become increasingly desensitized and brutalized. It's unfortunate that this, the most powerful part of the book, becomes obscured by Aue's psychosis and his escalating perversity, including a ridiculously over-the-top murder subplot.
Still, despite its huge flaws, this is a tremendously ambitious book, well worth reading.
Grover Gardner has a smooth, detached reading style that goes well with Aue's storytelling voice.
In the churchyard of London's St. Bride's Church, a young woman sits reading until, driven away by the annoyance of two young children, she enters the church's nave. Minutes later, she collapses and dies. The children report that they were playing a game of "witch hunter" and put a curse on her that killed her.
When the autopsy fails to identify a specific cause of death, Arthur Bryant of the Home Office's Peculiar Crimes Unit naturally wants the case. But the Metropolitan Police have jurisdiction and the PCU, being persona non grata in the Home Office, lack the power to take over.
Certainly their enemy-in-chief, the satanic Oscar Kasavian, isn't about to lift a finger to help them. He has vowed to wipe out the PCU and, particularly its beyond-retirement-age leads, Arthur Bryant and John May. Imagine Bryant and May's surprise, then, when Kasavian almost humbly asks them to help him with a problem involving his young wife.
As Bryant and May and the rest of the PCU team begin to investigate, the case takes on ever larger proportions. Government corruption, whistleblowers in private industry, mental illness and its history in London, private clubs, Russian gangsters, codes and ciphers and the supernatural are all thrown into the heady mix. On top of all that, there are disquieting revelations of how the British class system, cronyism and the complete disregard of commercial/government conflicts of interest conspire to ensure that a cabal of venal and ruthless men stay in power in British government.
But this is no grim, deadly serious police procedural. With the PCU, that's just not possible. Arthur Bryant is the absent-minded fellow with his latest meal evidenced down the front of his clothes and his cell phone made unusable by the melted sweets on it. He can't understand why people take exception to his conducting experiments at home and in the office involving things like pig carcasses and explosives. John May is Bryant's opposite: sartorially impeccable, careful to massage egos when necessary and a believer that the simplest answer is usually the right one. Despite their vast differences, Bryant and May make an effective team and, as always, they go right down to the wire in their investigation.
This tenth book in the Peculiar Crimes Unit series is notable for its use of London settings in the story. Descriptions of churches, museums, streets and history bring the city alive. This was a particularly satisfying story, one of my absolute favorites in the series. I laughed aloud several times but, as always with this series, I learned a lot and I was touched by the very human members of the team and the people they deal with.
This book can be read as a standalone, but I would suggest that at the very least, you read the previous book, The Memory of Blood, first. There are certain plot issues that come out of that book and it will make The Invisible Code that much more satisfying to know about them. Best of all, though, would be to read the whole series from the beginning, starting with Full Dark House.
One final mystery, though. The book is out in the UK, but as of September, 2012, there is no publication date listed in the US. However, you can get the audiobook from Audible. That's what I did and I can highly recommend it. The narrator, Tim Goodman, is wonderful. His voice for Arthur Bryant is dead-on perfection.
Here's the thing. I very rarely give a book five stars. As a Mainer, I was brought up to practice moderation. To say I liked a book is fine, but to say I LOVED it is a display of flamboyant emotion my fellow Mainers would look at askance. But there's no help for it; I did love this book.
Now the hard part. What's it about? Well, it's an old-fashioned tale of British Empire swashbuckling adventure (think The Man Who Would Be King, or King Solomon's Mines), a science fiction technology nightmare, a family drama, a coming-of-age story, a jeremiad against contemporary finance-world fiddles and the modern Orwellian state that tortures its citizens to protect our freedoms, a tragedy, a comedy, a romance. Hmm, that's not very helpful in giving you a picture of the book, is it? What if I say it's about a supervillain known as the Opium Khan who, with his "Ruskinites," an army of black-clad man-machines, and aided by the cynical complicity of the modern security state, works tirelessly over decades to achieve the power of a god over all of humanity, all the while countered by ingenious men and women and their steampunkish submarines, trains, various other devices and a network of extremely quirky characters and one ancient, blind, bad-tempered and one-toothed pug? No, I thought not.
Let's try another tack and look at the plot. Joshua Joseph Spork is a young, London clock maker and restorer of various types of clever machines, like Victorian automata. He is the son of the late ingenious and flashy gangster, Matthew "Tommy Gun" Spork, and the grandson of Matthew's disapproving clockmaker father, Daniel. Despite his love for his father and affection for the gangster world of the Night Market, where the criminal underworld meets periodically in a grand secret bazaar, Joe is so determined not to be like him that he has, as he says, dedicated his life to being mild. He's a quiet, law-abiding man, so shy and retiring he can't even bring himself to follow through on the world's most obvious hint when a generously bosomed barmaid places his hand over her heart.
Joe isn't a complete saint, though. He knows the sin of covetousness when he doggedly visits ancient Edie Bannister and feels sure she's working up to offering him some really excellent piece of machinery to work on. And she is, but she might have left it just a little late. What she has is a piece of a device that, like the atomic bomb, has the power to end all wars or destroy the world, depending on who controls it. And, suddenly, a lot of very bad men, including government men, want to be the ones to get their hands on it and are willing to do anything to Edie, Joe and everyone they ever knew to achieve their goal.
There follows a tale of dazzling imagination and invention that takes us back in time to Edie's youth as a highly skilled government agent doing battle with super villain Shem Shem Tsien and falling in love with Joe's genius inventor grandmother––the creator of the sought-after device. This long trip into the past is no digression, though, because everything that happens there is supremely important to Joe's story in the present.
In fact, though this is a long book crammed to the bursting point with anecdotes, people, places and things, not a single bit of it is frippery. It's all a part of the grand and intricate machinery that drives this epic story, one in which Joe ceases to be mild and embraces everything he ever learned from Matthew and his world. Why? So he can save the universe, of course.
All of the characters in this book are deftly drawn, the plot is always easy to follow despite its complexity, and Harkaway writes with a scintillating and abundant style that is just to the good side of florid. I'd say the book would make a crackerjack movie, except you'd miss the playful ingenuity of Harkaway's prose.
Harkaway is the son of famed espionage writer John le Carré. I imagine he knows a thing or two about growing up with a larger-than-life father, and that has added poignancy to Joe's story. Harkaway has chosen to follow his father's career and I'm glad he did. Though I warn you that this book may ruin you for any other reading for awhile. When I finished it, I was still so under its spell that nothing else appealed to me. I think I'll just give up and find a copy of Harkaway's first novel, The Gone-Away World.
A note about the audiobook: Daniel Weyman is the best possible narrator of this book. He understands that this is a story that needs to be ACTED, with absolute abandon, and he throws himself into it with all the energy and dash it deserves.
This is the third Vish Puri detective story, but my first read in the series. I didn't feel disadvantaged by not having read the first two books. I felt immediately immersed in modern Delhi, where gleaming skyscrapers filled with call centers sit next to street markets, cricket matches are the subject of wild enthusiasm (especially with the new feature of blonde American cheerleaders in skimpy outfits), and the streets are jammed with hair-raising kamikaze drivers––and the occasional cow. In today's Delhi, the status of money is beginning to replace the caste system, but the old world remains in the multi-generational households, arranged marriages, and religious rituals.
Vish Puri, affectionately called Chubby by his family, is the Boss of Most Private Detectives, assisted by a large group of operatives with colorful monikers like Tubelight, Facecream, Handbrake, Flush, and Chanel No.5. Even his beloved Mummy-Ji gets in on the sleuthing action on occasion––though against Puri's wishes.
As the story begins, Puri has been put on a diet by his wife, Rumpi. He'll do anything to make her happy, but he finds food irresistible. The descriptions of his meals were so mouth-watering I finally had to resolve not to read the book unless I had already eaten.
Puri has several cases on his plate (no pun intended): the murder (by poisoned Butter Chicken) of wealthy Pakistani Mr. Khan at a cricket federation dinner; allegations of cricket match fixing; and the "theft" of the long, luxuriant mustaches of two men.
Puri's adventures are comic, but author Tarquin isn't just playing for laughs. He doesn't turn a blind eye to the corruption in Indian society or its inequities, like an elderly servant who is made to sleep on her master's kitchen floor. The police force is inept (and worse), and Puri is himself hampered by VIP suspects who refuse to cooperate with his investigation and threaten him for daring to approach them. One thread of the plot goes back to the horrific days of the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, as Muslims fled north and Hindis and Sikhs south, with massacres of the refugees and abductions of women along the way.
What a pleasure to read a mystery with such charming, lively characters, and to be both entertained and educated. I listened to the audiobook and found its reader, Sam Dastor, to be a delight. His neutral narration was in a clear, British accent, and his characters' Indian-accented dialog seemed dead on.
The best Butter Chicken I ever had was at Amber India in Palo Alto, CA. Here's the recipe from that restaurant published some years back in the San Francisco Chronicle:
3 pounds chicken (2 half-breasts, 2 thighs, 2 legs), skinned
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon hot red pepper flakes
2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 cups unflavored yogurt
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1 1/2 teaspoons garlic paste (see note)
1 1/2 teaspoons ginger paste (see note)
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seed
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon garam masala
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon powdered ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground red chile
Pinch garam masala
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
2 teaspoons brown sugar
1/4 cup butter
2 cups canned tomatoes, chopped
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 cups water, or more as needed
2 tablespoons heavy cream
2 teaspoons ground fenugreek
Salt to taste
1. Make 3 parallel cuts on top of each piece of chicken. Place the chicken in a resealable heavy-duty plastic bag.
2. Combine the lemon juice, red pepper flakes and salt; pour over the chicken. Seal the bag and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
3. Combine the yogurt and cream in a bowl; blend well.
4. Mix together the garlic paste, ginger paste, coriander, cumin, garam masala and salt. Add to the yogurt mixture, blending thoroughly.
5. When the chicken has marinated for 30 minutes, remove it from the refrigerator, open the bag and pour in the yogurt mixture. Reseal the bag and refrigerate overnight.
6. To make the sauce: Combine the ginger, ground chile, garam masala, mace, nutmeg, white pepper and brown sugar in a small bowl.
7. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, the spice/sugar blend and water. Simmer, stirring frequently, for 20 minutes.
8. Add more water if the mixture gets too dry.
9. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
10. Remove the chicken from the marinade; discard the marinade.
11. Arrange the chicken pieces in a baking pan large enough to hold them in a single layer. Bake for 30 minutes.
12. Let the chicken cool until you can handle it, then remove the meat from the bones in bite-size pieces; discard bones.
13. Add the chicken meat, the cream and fenugreek to the sauce. Simmer for 10 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent burning. Taste, and add salt if desired.
PER SERVING: 325 calories, 28 g protein, 8 g carbohydrate, 20 g fat (10 g saturated), 126 mg cholesterol, 380 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.
Yields: Serves 4. Note: Ginger paste and garlic paste are available in jars. Look for them in Asian markets, and supermarkets that have large ethnic-food sections
The murder mystery begins with a bang. In his room at the corner of the top floor of an Amsterdam hotel, mathematics genius James Fenster is killed in a most unusual way. He's practically vaporized by a bomb made from highly volatile––and extremely hard to come by––rocket fuel. The hotel winds up looking like a giant took a bite out of the corner of the building. Because of the complexity and high profile of the case, Interpol's senior detective, Henri Poincaré, is assigned to the case. Poincaré's great-grandfather, Jules Henri Poincaré, was a celebrated mathematician and, while Henri is not similarly gifted, he has an appreciation of the beauty and mystery of mathematics.
James Fenster was a Harvard professor and had been about to give a speech at a World Trade Organization meeting about the inevitability of a global economy. This expands the field of possible suspects from those who know him, and possibly other mathematicians, to opponents of globalism––you know, all those people who run amok during WTO meetings. As Poincaré investigates, he must also include the head of a fabulously successful Boston mutual fund company; a man who funded much of Fenster's work, but who seems to have a ravenous greed for access to work that he believes Fenster has left behind on a computer hard drive.
While Poincaré is investigating the Fenster murder, he has other matters on his mind as well. Stipo Banovich, a Serbian Poincaré had arrested for the horrifying murder of 70 Muslim men and boys during the Bosnian conflict, is about to be tried for war crimes and he has issued dire threats against Poincaré's family. Poincaré is a devoted husband to Claire, father to architect Etienne, father-in-law to Lucille, and doting grandfather to twin boys and to Chloe, who has completely captured his heart.
As the two plots heat up, more fuel is added to the fire by a worldwide apocalyptic Christian cult whose members believe the Rapture will arrive soon (August, 2012, in case you want to make plans). Some of the "schismatic" members of the cult want to hurry along the chaos that is supposed to precede the rapture by suicide bombings. Poincaré's team must investigate the bombings and try to prevent more of them, along with their Fenster investigation and the Banovich threat.
Despite its complexity, the plot is lively and compelling. Chaos theory and fractals are part of the story, and author Leonard Rosen makes them fascinating. Even math-phobes are likely to think so. The tackles political, social and religious issues and respects its readers' intelligence. All the characters are well-drawn, especially Poincaré. A dogged investigator and a deeply moral man, he reminds me of Louise Penny's Armand Gamache. It's refreshing to have mystery protagonists with family lives and no substance abuse problems. (Psst: they're still interesting without all that baggage, brooding and booze.)
Since All Cry Chaos is subtitled "An Henri Poincaré Mystery," I'm thinking––hoping is more like it––that this is the start of a series. I see no evidence of a second book yet, but I'll be on the lookout for it.
Grover Gardner was a C+/B- reader for me. There was absolutely nothing wrong with his reading or pronunciation, but I didn't feel like his voice matched the material well. His voice is a little harsh. This book would have been better served by somebody like Ralph Cosham or someone with a bit of a European accent, since Poincaré and many of the other characters are French.
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