Thursday, November 27, 2014

True Grit: Pietr the Latvian, first novel in the classic mystery series by Georges Simenon

The novel Pietr the Latvian (1929) is Georges Simenon’s introduction of Maigret, the stoical French detective and inspector leader of the Paris police “Flying Squad.” The popularity of the character spanned many decades, and the writer published seventy-five novels and twenty-eight short stories about Maigret between 1931 and 1972. In this volume, there is a Simenon quote that gives the reader an idea of how the character was first developed. Simenon was sitting in a café one morning enjoying a glass of schnapps when he decided to write a mystery series focused on the activities of a unique character, a large powerfully built gentleman accessorized with a pipe, a bowler, a thick overcoat with a velvet collar, and a fondness for standing in front of a cast iron stove in his office. Like Simenon himself, Maigret loved smoking and drinking, the latter without overt drunkenness. Maigret was conceived to be a dogged procedural investigator with frequent actions determined by his intuitions regarding the motivations of criminals. Maigret is married, and his wife expects and endures frequent unannounced absences as the detective chases down criminals with the help of his squad.

There was a time when I read many mysteries because I thought writers in this genre focus more directly on the psychology of the characters than writers in other fiction categories. Simenon is a good example of this concentration since he deliberately selected a character dedicated to his career and to life’s small but daily personal pleasures tobacco, alcohol, physical warmth, and in particular active interaction with criminals from a position of power. The reader does not so much identify with the inspector but rather follows him around in a somewhat subservient fashion. Like the subordinates and criminals Maigret runs across in the stories, the reader does not want to get in the man’s way. In this novel and others, Maigret likes to use his large body to invade the space of others, intimidating them with his bulk and imperative language.

In Pietr the Latvian, it is apparent how Simenon hooked readers into following the somewhat overbearing detective, a hard man to like on the surface. In this case, Maigret investigates a murder on a train that occurs on a journey from northern Europe to Paris. The detective puffs on his pipe, stands in front of his cast iron stove, and follows the trail of suspects who after the murder are staying at a first class hotel in Paris. Maigret shows grit in his endurance as he travels and works for days without sleep in pursuit of evidence that will solve the perpetrator’s identity diversions. Considered a threat, the detective is targeted for elimination and suffers injury but plods on in his investigation, weakened but determined. In the course of exhausting events, Maigret takes time to enjoy his tobacco, alcohol, and comfort of heat in various locations during the cold and rainy conditions in France.

I will be following the detective in his many cases for many years to come, continuing by reading novel number 2 when the mood strikes me. If you like contemporary mysteries, the Maigret series will provide a good foundation for understanding the genre.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Ascend: The Mountain Story a novel by Lori Lansens

The Mountain Story is an exciting tale of people with initially independent perceptions brought together by a common motivation, the desire for freedom from the past. Determined by a variety circumstances to search restlessly for escape from lives of reaction rather than meaningful action, Wolf, Byrd, Nora, Bridget, and Vonn are drawn by their need for peace to a mountain rising from a desert floor. Wolf, a teenager brought to California from Michigan by his ne’er-do-well father, narrates the story via a letter he is writing later in life to his son describing his magic mountain first as a physical challenge, then as a psychological dilemma. Like Hans Castorp writing in his journal in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Wolf, shows himself to be a naïve but sensitive and accurate observer of the mountain and the behavior of the 4 people who will share his fate.

When he first arrived in California, Wolf was passive, following and learning from his friend Byrd, a local California resident, who has developed a good knowledge of the mountain during his life. Then, the reader follows 18 year old Wolf as he rides up the face of the mountain in a sky tram in a state of depression. Alone because Byrd has had an “accident,” Wolf encounters Nora, Bridget, and Vonn riding up in the same tram. Not concerned about the afternoon start of their adventure, the four strangers find a common experience “off trail,” lost on the mountain with darkness closing in quickly. Wolf reluctantly takes a leadership role as the only male but with limited knowledge of the dangerous terrain. He is tested immediately as the party attempts to return to the tram terminal.

The story is one of survival during which the four lost hikers must take meaningful action with limited understanding of the mountain. That dilemma causes them to live intensely by the hour, minute, and moment fully owning the rewards and consequences of their behavior. The constricted time line paradoxically allows them more time for life reviews, reflection, and insight than they ever had in the flatlands of their normal lives.

The writing provides good descriptions of physical events, and the excitement of potentially deadly situations is high. The exploration of relationships between grandmother (Nora), mother (Bridget), and daughter (Vonn) shows how generational life experience sets the stage and affects reaction times for the characters in emergencies. The reader sees more intimately how Wolf shuffles off the trappings of his early life in Michigan and understands his changes in perceptions through adult relationships with the women. The boy to man changes require that Wolf (like Hans Castorp) tries everything possible to make a commitment to descend from the mountain and keep life close rather than at arm’s distance like his inadequate father.

One observation I have is that the voice of Wolf is feminine, as if Lansens is writing about the behaviors and thoughts of a young woman. I noticed this all though the letter Wolf is writing to his son describing the events on the magic mountain. I can see this as both deliberate and accidental as the writer slips in and out of character in the context of the letter.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Put It In Writing: The Silkworm a novel by Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling)

 The Silkworm is the second novel in the British detective series featuring Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott by Robert Galbraith. After critical acclaim for volume 1, J. K. Rowling acknowledged that she is the writer behind the Galbraith nom de plume. Rowling explained that she wanted the freedom to publish novels without being judged against her history of international success writing the Harry Potter books. This judgment was harsh, in my opinion, when Rowling published her Potter breakaway novel, The Casual Vacancy. That was an excellent stand-alone novel and I wondered what direction her writing would take. I hoped some of the criticism would not cause her to abandon writing fiction for adult readers.

Well, it did not. The Casual Vacancy, published in Rowling's own name, is a British village story with great character development and interaction that involves elements of mystery. The Cuckoo's Calling and The Silkworm are excellent beginnings of a detective/mystery series in the British tradition of Robert Barnard  and Simon Brett, two of my favorites. The plots are complicated but realistic in that Rowling uses Cormoran's perspective to reveal clues to murders, withholding information causing the reader to puzzle over the guilt of several suspects. Cormoran is a large, gruff, disabled British Army veteran of the current war in Afghanistan. He was a military detective, Special Investigation Division, and he now uses the systematic investigative skills he learned in the military in his private detective work. Cormoran has an interesting and challenging personal history that influences his current social relationships and work life. One fairly stable relationship is with Robin who has become a partner (at her insistence). She does not want to remain a secretary in his office. The pair make a good team, but it is a complicated situation; there is only one undisputed boss.

In The Silkworm, a well-known British writer is missing, and his widow seeks out the detective to find him even though the woman cannot pay him. Cormoran finds the author's mutilated body in a London mansion, and he and Robin make room in the office caseload to solve the crime. The "Bombyx Mori" (the Latin term for Silkworm) is the name of a novel written by the murdered author. It is a metaphor for a private cocoon of obsessive resentment, guilt, envy, and retribution enclosing the perpetrator of the murder. The novel starts with a recap of Cormoran and Robin's activities including the prior case described in The Cuckoo's Calling, so readers can begin the series at volume two with enough information to understand the general detective situation. Because the action takes place in the context of novel writing and publishing, it is interesting to hear Rowlings voice as she criticizes electronic self-publishing that may make anyone feel like a readable author.

I was happy to read that Rowling plans to write "many" more novels in the Cormoran Strike series, and she is half way through volume three with an idea for volume four. What makes this series so good is the wonderful writing style of J. K. Rowling and her ability to encourage readers to identify with and like the key people in her mystery stories. I am hooked for sure.