Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Of the five historical mysteries I read over my summer vacation, I liked three of them enough to consider reading more in the series.* The little Banville novel is something of an exception, since I've already read all but a few of Banville's books. I'll really lay into Banville tomorrow, so let's set that one aside.

Maybe I'll set Carlo Lucarelli aside, too. The greatest interest there is thematic. Plus, it was so short, you read all three books in the series, and you're not even close to 300 pages. Easy reading.

In two other novels, the great appeal of the writing is the voice of the narrator. Steve Hockensmith is playing with the Sherlock Holmes type of mystery, so the narrator has to be Dr. Watson. But in this case, Watson is a burly cowboy named Big Red. Holmes is his older, smaller, smarter brother, Old Red. Old Red is illiterate, so Big Red has to read him the latest Sherlock Holmes stories. Also, the signs on the bathroom doors. The comedy can be a bit broad. Funny, though.

Watson \ Big Red is folksy and sees the homorous side of things, so the tone is almost always comic. I don't think I ever actually laughed while reading this book, but that's a matter of habit:**

"Someone cleared his throat, and I glance across the aisle to find a fortyish sport in a checked suit giving me the eye in a friendly, amused sort of way. He had a face as flat and pink as a slice of ham, and atop his head was a pompadour of such impressive proportions I wouldn't have been surprised had I spotted the great explore Sigerson attempting to climb it with a team of native guides." (p. 33)

That's pretty good. If its not quite characteristic, that's because of all the dialogue and plot fuss, most of which was all right. The book has many short chapters, which unfortunately often end with irritating false climaxes - this is my main stylistic complaint. They do work, though - I always wanted to keep going.

Hockensmith's narrator has a typical comic voice. Owen Parry created something more original for his Civil War mysteries. Abel Jones, our hero, is Welsh, a veteran of wars in India, a wounded veteran of Bull Run, and a Methodist teetotaler. He is earnest and self-righteous, full of prejudices (against the Irish, the rich, cavalrymen). And he's scared of horses, "great stupid things," "four-legged demons."

The comedy of the book, which in many ways is a quite serious piece of work, comes from the narrator's inability to suppress his judgmental scolding, even while telling the story of a murder investigation, or a battle. Mostly, he's a driven man on a mission, but he continually pauses to zing his superiors, scold his inferiors, and praise his own virtue. An example of the latter: he does not drink, of course, but he'll buy whiskey for other people, in order to get them to spill secrets. But then he tells us that he feels bad about it.

Maybe this isn't meant to be funny, but I think it is, because it works so well. It deepens the character - in some ways he's a very narrow man, while in other ways he's an abyss. It keeps me guessing, at least - just what will he be capable of, this strange fellow.

My only real disappointment with the book is that the answer is: whatever is necessary to fulfill certain plot and genre expectations. But let that bide, as Captain Abel Jones always says when he suspects he's gone a bit too far.

By the way, neither of these narrators, both of whom are supposedly writing their stories, sound remotely like they actually would have, telling their own stories at the time. But, fortunately, I don't care about accuracy.

* In the right situation - trans-Atlantic flight, for example - I'd read more of any of them. I just wouldn't go out of my way for more Victoria Thompson or Michael Pearce.

** The Parry and Hockensmith books are both quite funny, but my only audible laugh came from the Michael Pearce novel, the one set in Trieste. The angry, drunken Irishman, suspected of murder, turns out to be James Joyce, which is funny enough. Wait, I thought, Italo Svevo lived in Trieste, too - I wonder if Pearce can work him in. About two pages later, there he was, under his real name, smoking one of his last cigarettes (see The Confessions of Zeno, Ch. 1). That's where I laughed.

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