Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Villain: Shuichi Yoshida

From the  Random House website:
A chilling and seductive story of loneliness, desperation, and murder, Villain is the English-language debut of one of Japan’s most popular writers. 
 A woman is killed at a ghostly mountain pass in southern Japan and the local police quickly pinpoint a suspect. But as the puzzle pieces of the crime slowly click into place, new questions arise. Is a villain simply the person who commits a crime or are those who feel no remorse for malicious behavior just as guilty? Moving from office parks and claustrophobic love hotels to desolate seaside towns and lighthouses, Shuichi Yoshida’s dark thriller reveals the inner lives of men and women who all have something to hide.

This novel had contrasting elements. This story is much more in the thriller vein than other Japanese mysteries I have read. The pacing is slow at times, but there is plenty of action at several points in the story. The tension heightens at the end.

The author focuses on the primary characters involved in the murder and the peripheral characters whose lives are affected by it. I enjoyed the way the story was told, from multiple points of view. The narrative goes back and forth between events before the murder and the search for the suspects. The story of the parents of the victim and the grandparents of one of the suspects was just as interesting to me as the story of the murder and the hunt for various suspects. This story is bleak. However, I did not find it a depressing read.

See also reviews by Bernadette at Reactions to Reading and Keishon at Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog. Keishon's post is a discussion between Keishon and another blogger with some spoilers.

One of the points that both of these reviews make was that the US cover with the gun made up of human bones bears no relation to the story. That is very true. But it is a cool cover and if I had not seen the cover in a bookstore several years ago, I probably would not have read this book.

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Publisher:   Pantheon Books, 2010 (orig. pub. 2007)
Translator:  Philip Gabriel
Length:       295 pages
Format:       Hardcover
Setting:       Japan
Genre:        Mystery
Source:       I purchased this book.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Salvation of a Saint: Keigo Higashino

This was one of the last books I read in 2014. I read it for the Japanese Literary Challenge 8 hosted by Dolce Bellezza.

Description from the dust jacket of the edition I read:
Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X was widely proclaimed one of the best books of the year and a finalist for the world’s top award in crime fiction. The first major English-language publication from the most popular writer in Japan, it was acclaimed by critics as “stunning,” “brilliant,” and “ingenious.” Now physics professor Manabu Yukawa –Detective Galileo – returns in a new case of impossible murder, where instincts clash with facts, and theory with reality.
When a man who was about to leave his marriage is poisoned to death, his wife becomes the logical suspect, except for one simple fact: She was hundreds of miles away when he was murdered. Tokyo police detective Kusanagi and his assistant, Kaoru Utsumi, cannot agree on a suspect. Was it his wife, his girlfriend, his business associate? Or was this a random crime? When they call upon their secret weapon, Professor Manabu Yukawa, even his brilliant mind is challenged by a crime that is implausible, methodical, and perfect.

The Japanese  crime fiction novels I have read are not thrillers, but more like character studies, looking into the how and why of the crime. This one is a locked room mystery, and although the puzzle to be solved in this one is very ingenious, I am not usually into that type of story. Nevertheless, there were many elements of the story I found interesting and entertaining.

The detectives seem to be at odds or in competition. There is a new young detective, Utsumi, bringing in new ideas. The head detective, Kusanagi, is in disagreement with her almost immediately. He is also at odds with his old friend, Yukawa. Because the two detectives have very different ideas about who the murderer is, Utsumi goes to the professor and asks for his help. He is reluctant at first, and Kusanagi is less than thrilled at his interference.

This story explores the how and why of the murder less than who did it.  It also delves into relationships and behavior of many of those involved. The importance of children in this culture is emphasized. A lot of the story revolves around the inability of Ayane to have a child, and her husband's reaction to this. The couple's friends have a new baby and are proud and happy.

Although I preferred The Devotion of Suspect X, this book was also very good. It had more aspects of a police procedural, which was a plus for me, and I liked the new young detective it introduced.

See Margot's view at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...

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Publisher:   Minotaur Books, 2012 (orig. pub. 2008)
Translator:  Alexander O. Smith with Elye Alexander
Length:       330 pages
Format:       Hardcover
Series:        Professor Galileo, #2
Setting:       Tokyo, Japan
Genre:        Mystery
Source:       Borrowed from my husband.

Monday, January 19, 2015

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust: Alan Bradley

I have enjoyed all six previous entries in the Flavia de Luce series by Alan Bradley.  I never expected to like a series about an eleven-year-old girl who investigates crimes, but I was won over by the first book. Each book has been entertaining and fun. The books are set in post World War II Britain, in the village of Bishop's Lacey. Flavia is the youngest daughter (around 11 years old) in the de Luce family; she lives with her two sisters and their father in a very old country house that requires a lot of upkeep. Her mother died when she was young. Each member of the family is unique, and none of them communicate their feelings very well.

The sixth book resolves the plot thread of Flavia's missing mother. Now the series has moved to Canada. Flavia, now 12 years old, has been sent to a girls' school in Toronto, Canada. At Miss Bodycote's Female Academy she is to continue her education and learn some unnamed ancient arts in her mother's old school. Almost as soon as Flavia gets settled in her room at the school, a charred body comes crashing down out of her bedroom chimney. As Flavia investigates this occurrence, she discovers that more than one girl has mysteriously disappeared from the school.

This book did keep me entertained, but it was not up to the standard of earlier books. I thought I was going to like the move to a new setting; I like to read books set in Canada and the author is Canadian, but the Canadian setting did not work as well for me. There were descriptions of Toronto, but most of the book is set in the very strange Female Academy. That institution and its inhabitants strained my ability to suspend disbelief even more than earlier books. In previous books there have always been interesting secondary characters, even the ones that show up for only one book. There was no depth to any new character in this story.The plot seemed disjointed. The mystery is solved but the many questions Flavia has about her new school (a secret society, who can she trust, what is she actually there to learn?) are left unresolved.

Alan Bradley's books about Flavia have never failed to pull me in and keep me interested and entertained. I credit Bradley's superb storytelling ability for that. Flavia is a wonderful character. Where this book was lacking was in plot and  characterization and the storytelling could not overcome that.

I would like to note that most reviews of this book were very positive. I refer to some below. Some reviews point out the issues I had but did not consider them serious drawbacks. So if you like this series, don't let this review deter you. And if you want to try it, I suggest starting with an earlier stronger book. I would read them in order, but many readers of the series say that each can stand alone.

See other reviews at Bookloons, Peggy Ann's Post, the Montreal Gazette, Publisher's Weekly.

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Publisher:   Delacorte Press, 2015
Length:       384 pages
Format:      ebook
Setting:      Toronto, Canada
Genre:        Historical mystery
Source:      Provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Vintage Mystery Bingo Challenge 2015


I am again participating in the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge. The Challenge is hosted by Bev at My Reader's Block. For the 2014 challenge, Bev used a bingo card format and she is continuing with that format this year.

Vintage Mystery BINGO Challenge 2015:

There are two choices, and Challengers can go for both challenges or just for one. There is a Silver Age or Golden Age Card.

For the purposes of this challenge, the Golden Age Vintage Mysteries must have been first published before 1960. Short story collections (whether published pre-1960 or not) are permissible provided all of the stories included in the collection were originally written pre-1960.

Silver Age Vintage Mysteries may be first published any time from 1960 to 1989 (inclusive). Again, Silver Age short story collections published later than 1989 are permissible as long as they include no stories first published later than 1989.

There lots of rules and explanations, so if you are interested in the challenge, click on the link above.

This year, as last year, I will attempt to get BINGOs for both Gold and Silver vintage mysteries. It will be interesting to see if I actually make any BINGOs. Last year I struggled, because I did not plan the books I read. Even so I got a total of 3 BINGOs between the two challenges.

I am including one of the BINGO cards, in case you are curious. The Gold and Silver cards are almost identical.



Friday, January 16, 2015

Deal Me In 2015: Story #1 (Lamb to the Slaughter by Roald Dahl)


The first card I drew for the Deal Me In Short Story challenge was the 6 of Spades. Thus, my first story is "Lamb to the Slaughter" by Roald Dahl.

This was one of the few stories in my Deal Me In list that  I was already familiar with, by reputation. It had been discussed under the topic of unusual murder weapons. This story is in a collection of mystery stories, and the theme of the collection is food and eating. When I chose this story for my list, I had no idea how well known it is.

Mary Maloney waits eagerly for her husband, a policeman, to come home from work; it is their regular night to go out for dinner. She is six months pregnant, and is portrayed  as a loving wife. When her husband arrives, he is short with her, and decides to break some bad news to her; that he will be leaving her but she will be taken care of. She finds it difficult to believe or to react to; on automatic, she goes into the kitchen to prepare supper.

This story was chilling and dark but not depressing. It was a great read and it was not what I expected, even knowing a bit about it going in.

Reading this story has convinced me to try more Roald Dahl short stories. While looking into the story I saw some comparisons to another story by this author, "The Landlady." I read it and it is just as chilling as "Lamb to the Slaughter." That story won the 1960 Edgar for Best Short Story. In 1954, Dahl won the Best Short Story Edgar for "Someone Like You."

I read this story in Murder on the Menu, but it has been reprinted in many collections. It is available online here or here.

Resources:


My Deal Me In list of short stories is here. Jay at Bibliophilopolis hosts the challenge.



Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Books of 1915: The 39 Steps by John Buchan

John Buchan's The 39 Steps was an early spy thriller. Some articles credit Buchan as being the father of the modern spy thriller; others say this about Eric Ambler. This is a hard book to review. As Col at Col's Criminal Library said in his review, there is not much I can add that hasn't been covered in all the other reviews and articles online. This is my contribution to the Past Offences Crime Fiction of the Year Challenge for 1915.

What did I think of The 39 Steps? I enjoyed reading the book, but I did wonder why it has been on so many lists of best crime fiction stories.  It is a short book, like many written at that time, and I read it very quickly. I did have problems with bigotry and casual racial slurs in the telling of the story but that is not unusual in books of that time. I was reading this book more as an educational experience (a classic written during a time period that I am interested in), rather than expecting to really like it, but it turned out to be an entertaining read all the same.

The action in this book takes place before Britain enters World War I. Richard Hannay is living a quiet life in London, and is very, very bored. He has left behind a more exciting life in South Africa. A mysterious man named Scudder enters his flat and requests that he be able to stay with Hannay for a few days, telling him about a plot to assassinate a foreign official who will be visiting soon. The man ends up dead, and Hannay is determined to follow through and get the information he has gleaned from this stranger to the right authorities. He is motivated somewhat by fear that he will be blamed for Scudder's death but he seems brave, although not sure of his abilities to avoid being captured by the enemy. He also has been taught well about how to blend in and appear to be what he is not.
Peter once discussed with me the question of disguises, and he had a theory which struck me at the time. He said, barring absolute certainties like fingerprints, mere physical traits were very little use for identification if the fugitive really knew his business. He laughed at things like dyed hair and false beards ...
If a man could get into perfectly different surroundings from those in which he had been first observed, and - this is the important part - really play up to these surroundings and behave as if he had never been out of them, he would puzzle the cleverest detectives on earth.
I found it problematic that things go too well for him and he never seems to be in real danger. Yet I was still entertained. His self-doubt and deprecation were appealing compared to the heroes of some current action thrillers.

Although I read a lot of vintage crime fiction, I do have a bias against reading really old books (late 19th century or early 20th century) because of stereotypes and the lack of good female characters in general. Yet having decided to read the book, I tried to not to judge it by the standards of today's writing. I was bothered (and surprised) that only men really figured in this story. Women characters featured only briefly and just as helpers to get him on his  way. This is a major difference from the 1935 Hitchcock adaptation, but the book was probably more realistic.

There are many resources online regarding John Buchan's books and his life. Here are some I found of interest:
I acquired my paperback copy at the Planned Parenthood book sale last September. With its small and faded type, it was hard to read but I love the cover. See this post at Killer Covers which includes information about this cover and the cover artist.

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Publisher:  Popular Library, 1963. Orig. pub. 1915.
Length:     142 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Richard Hannay, #1
Setting:     UK, Scotland
Genre:      Adventure, spy thriller
Source:     Purchased my copy.