Tag Archives: mystery

“The Department of Sensitive Crimes – A Detective Varg Novel (1)” by Alexander McCall Smith

The Department of Sensitive Crimes: A Detective Varg Novel (1) (Detective Varg Series)

This is McCall Smith’s first novel set in Sweden, introducing a new protagonist, detective Ulf Varg. Why Sweden? McCall Smith has so many other irons in the fire! In books like the Number One Ladies Detective Agency series, the reader feels like he knows his territory (as well as his characters) so intimately. You can’t help but love Mma Ramotswe and Botswana. Does McCall Smith really know Sweden equally well? Or has he found a formula he plans to extend to new countries at random?

Indulge me while I ponder the matter of cultural appropriation. Again, why Sweden? Admittedly, McCall Smith’s novels deal with the interior life – the thoughts, feelings, joys and sorrows of his characters. So maybe it doesn’t matter where they are set. But will Swedes find his portrayal of their country sympathetic? Or condescending? Possibly stereotypical? And (getting down to the tiniest detail…) whence came the umlaut (double dot) over the “A” in McCall Smith’s name (see cover above). Sorry, Sir, you can’t just help yourself to an umlaut! That’s linguistic appropriation. Stay in your own lane, as we say in the USA. (This may prove that I have NO sense of humor.)

The plot deals with a series of criminal investigations, and with the interactions between a group of co-workers (and one “outsider”). Also included is Ulf Varg’s psychoanalyst, who conveniently illuminates the disorder afflicting a person targeted in one investigation, clinical lycanthropy. In other words, the overwhelming that delusion that one is, in fact, a werewolf. Clinical lycanthropy is NOT a crime.

I enjoyed the end  of this book (when a romance emerges) more than the beginning, so perhaps I will continue to read about Detective Varg. He and the other characters may grow on me.

“Full Dark House” and “The Water Room” by Christopher Fowler

These are the first two books in the series about the fictional London “Peculiar Crimes Unit”, also known as the Bryant and May mysteries after the two protagonists.

These are first class mysteries, full of atmosphere and detail.

Full Dark House takes place during the Blitz, and reflects the anguish of a country at war. A German invasion is expected. Civil order is stressed near the breaking point. Deaths in a popular theater need to be solved. Bryant and May are young and inexperienced – the War forces people into jobs for which they are unprepared.

The Water Room takes place decades later, when Bryant and May are past retirement age and the Peculiar Crimes Unit is threatened with dissolution. Crime strikes a neighbor balanced uncertainly between slum status and upward mobility.

Bryant and May represent two different approaches to crime. Bryant is an intuitive and “non-linear” thinker, likely to propose mythical or psychological explanations for human behavior. He cultivates a wide acquaintance among London’s fortune tellers, psychics, witches, cultists and oddballs, sometimes using them to aid his investigations. May represents the “conventional” approach to crime – interview witnesses, seek motives and connections, repeat as necessary. Together, they solve seemingly impossible conundrums.

These books force the reader to confront the question, which am I, logical or intuitive? Given that “logical” is now (at least in theory) mainstream and dominant, how do I incorporate the intuitive into my mental processes? When do I rely on my “intuition”? Important questions! When does intuition slide into prejudice?

I have good friends on both sides of the line. I come down on the “rational” side… mostly. If I was a crime victim and the investigating detective decided to consult a psychic, I wouldn’t be pleased. How about you?

Wikipedia points out that the city of London itself can be considered a “separate character” in the Peculiar Crimes novels. This is especially true in The Water Room. London is built over ancient structures, including enclosed rivers and underground chambers. This historical framework adds a wonderful dimension to Fowler’s writing.

I plan to keep a novel or two from Fowler on my Kindle, against a rainy day or travel delay. Fowler is a very prolific writer. I won’t run out soon!

“Rosemary Cottage” by Colleen Coble

Beach reading… you know, the not-quite-trashy romantic novels you read to relax…

This book had the advantage of a beach setting, a town called Hope Beach, much like Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  A man and a woman have died a few weeks apart, apparently accidentally. But a relative believes there was foul play, and the fun begins. The story pivots around a baby, a pretty year-old girl named Raine, daughter of the deceased woman. Raine is kidnapped, and the tension rises. Ultimately, Raine survives and her uncle/guardian finds the woman of his dreams to complete their family.

If you dislike politicians, you will savor the downfall of the bad guy, who fathered Raine and would not acknowledge her. Add blackmail and the plot thickens.

Good fun, when you are in the right mood.

When I want to read fiction set in North Carolina, I usually turn to Margaret Maron, whose “Bootlegger’s Daughter” series, less “romantic” and more oriented towards criminal mysteries, has kept my attention for years.

“Pentecost Alley” by Anne Perry

Anne Perry is an astonishingly prolific writer, with more than 50 books to her credit. I’m sure “Pentecost Alley” is not the first book of hers that I have read. She has published several series, and I think I would like to try her Christmas books and Young Adult novels. 

So what about “Pentecost Alley”? It’s good, maybe a little more complicated than I like. The atmosphere is well drawn. I don’t think it’s fair to resolve a plot with a bag of dynamite that turns up five pages from the end of the book! I wonder if her interpretation of Victorian womanhood is historically “accurate”. And WHERE did she get the title/place name, Pentecost Alley?? There’s no speaking in tongues… One character saves himself through (amateur) social work. A young woman experiences a type of redemption. 

Further analysis seems unnecessary. I’ll read Anne Perry next time I need reliable distraction.