The Butchered Man

By Harriet Smart

The_AlienistSo, I’d read The Alienist over twenty years ago in college, and only vaguely remembered  it being about applying the very young field of psychology to the profiling of serial killers, and that the serial killer in question preyed on young boy prostitutes. I didn’t remember any details, including any of the central characters or the final solution, so the miniseries was almost a brand-new story for me, and I loved it! The acting was all excellent, overshadowed only by the lush cinematography highlighting the dramatic differences between the very wealthy and the very poor at the end of the nineteenth century. I am very much hoping that TNT decides to tackle the sequel, The Angel of Darkness, next!

Butchered_ManAnyway, The Butchered Man reminded me strongly of The Alienist, in a good way. It takes place a good fifty years earlier and in rural England, but the two central protagonists fit right in. Giles Vernon is an ex-military man and current police chief, who is working to transition the local police from a loose watchman structure to a more organized unit based on his military experience. To that end, he hires Felix Carswell as a full-time police surgeon and forensic pathologist.

So, both characters are on the cutting edge of their professions and struggling against the status quo to push advancements. Carswell is a particularly interesting character; as the acknowledged natural son of one of the local bigwigs, he struggles with not quite fitting into any social strata. I was immediately engaged in both the characters and the mystery, and am looking forward to continuing with the series. My one caveat, though, is that the overall story does not necessarily show women overall in the best light, and I’ll be on the watch for that in the subsequent novels.

FalletAnd going back to TV, can I also recommend “Fallet” on Netflix? The preview seem to show a somewhat generically dark police procedural, but there was a subtle quirkiness to it that attracted me. Let me tell you, in the actual show, the quirkiness is not subtle: “Fallet” is an extremely funny satire of the popular Nordic mystery genre. The characters and dialogue are laugh-out-loud funny, but the actors, director, and cinematographer all play it extremely straight, which makes it even funnier. The whole season is eight half-hour episodes, so it is a quick and easy watch, though it is subtitled, since half the characters speak Swedish.

The Bedlam Stacks

By Natasha Pulley

Bedlam_StacksOh, man, you guys! This book is so good! The Bedlam Stacks is the second novel by the author of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, and I’d forgotten how good that novel was, too! They both have this beautiful atmosphere of dreaminess and suspense, and all the characters are so smart and interesting, even when they are at odds with each other, and the dialogue is so witty!

So, The Bedlam Stacks is about a guy who works for the East India Company as a smuggler, which the book fully recognizes is super problematic. Merrick Tremayne travels around the world, steals other countries’ protected resources and brings them back to London for the English company to sell at a huge profit. When the story starts, he has been injured in China and convalescing at his decrepit family estate. Though he isn’t fully able to walk yet, the company asks him to go to Peru to steal some cuttings of a native tree that is the main ingredient of the only known malaria cure at the time.

I would say that this is a stand-alone book and you don’t have to read The Watchmaker first, but you actually do. There is very little overlap in characters and setting, but to borrow from the clockwork theme, there’s a small but important cog in the story that you won’t understand if you don’t already know the secret of The Watchmaker. One of the very cool chapters when things start falling into place won’t make any sense at all, and will probably just confuse everything worse.

That said, The Watchmaker had one key magical element that transformed the very mundane London setting. The Bedlam Stacks exponentially expands the world-building to an entire region in Peru, where what we would consider magic is built into the way of life, both to the benefit and detriment of the locals. I loved it, it broke my heart, and I can’t stop thinking about it!

Crooked House

By Agatha Christie

Crooked_HouseI’m a fan of Agatha Christie, but I find both Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot kind of tiresome. So, I’m mostly a fan of her stand-alone books. (Though for a truly bizarre experience, read her faintly supernatural Harley Quin short stories.*)

Anyway, Crooked House was new to me, and was extremely entertaining! I mean, of course it was – Agatha Christie is a master at plotting and characters! It is sort of a classic English country estate mystery, with the patriarch dying under mysterious circumstances, and all members of the extensive family, who naturally all live together in the sprawling estate (the titular ‘crooked house’), are under suspicion. It takes an outsider to sift through all the relationships, in this case the fiancé of the beloved granddaughter, who is coincidentally also the son of the assistant commissioner of Scotland Yard.

It is all very genteel and English, and because Agatha Christie is so good, I basically rotated through suspecting pretty much every character, with in retrospect the obvious exception of the actual culprit. The ending came as a huge surprise to me, which I always appreciate. There are also shenanigans around the will, which is always a fun bonus to a murder mystery.

A movie of it came out last year, which has an amazing cast, though somewhat odd choices for some of the characters. I’m very much looking forward to seeing it as soon as I can figure out how to access it without Amazon Prime. (For the most part, streaming has made movies more accessible, but a few times, it makes it more difficult to track down a specific movie that I know a local video rental store would have had, if those were still around.)

* That’s right, Christie had a Harley Quin, way before DC finally figured out it would benefit them to invest in some of their female characters. Christie’s Quin, though, is male and reads so obviously gay by today’s standards that it makes me wonder whether Christie was being fairly subversive for her time.)

The Sisters Brothers

By Patrick deWitt

Sisters_BrothersI really like Western movies, but I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book in the genre, actually. I love to see the long shots of empty vistas and close-ups of horses, but am not quite so keen to read about them. I have a suspicion that The Sisters Brothers is not your normal Western, but I absolutely loved it!

It was the title that caught my attention, of course, and I checked it out, just to figure out how to parse it (it is two brothers with the last name Sisters). The Sisters Brothers are infamous gunslingers hired by a mob boss to track down someone who ran with his money. Along the way, they run into various misadventures, and discover that things are not exactly as they’ve been told.

It’s not for everyone, I’d say; the writing was similar to Faulkner’s, I thought, with a plainness that highlights the sort of general absurdity of life, but more plot-driven than Faulkner usually is, which is probably why it is a genre novel, not capital-L Literature. It reminded me a lot of the Fargo television show, actually: a fair amount of extreme violence, but balanced with a quirky humor and some unexpected heart.

Speaking of television shows…

Pocketful of Bones

By Julie Frayn

Pocketful_of_BonesPocketful of Bones is straight-up Bates Motel! Within the first chapter or two, a young prostitute accidentally gets pregnant from a john; when he discovers the baby and threatens to take the child from her, she kills him and buries him the backyard She continues to support herself and her son through sex work, which complicates the son’s adolescent sexual awakening (to put it nicely).

Per the description on the back of the book, eventually things come to a head, when the mom has to rebuff the son’s advances, and he leaves, only returning to the house (and yard) much later. The first half constantly increases the sense anxiety, as the bodies pile up, but tempers it with moments of humor and pathos. As it neared the middle, though, I was sort of gritting my teeth, trying to get past the impending incest-adjacent scene, hoping for a respite from the claustrophobia of the house and yard.

Unfortunately, the damage has been done, and the second half just doubles-down, with two different narratives of disturbed people with the potential to wreck havoc on everyone around them. The anxiety became unsustainable, and I found it increasingly difficult to finish. As an aside: this book is not kind to men in general; almost all victims are men, and while it is debatable whether they deserve to be killed and buried in someone’s backyard, I certainly understood why someone might be tempted to do just that.

Murder on the Champs-Élysées

By Alex Mandon

Champs-ElyseesInspector Guillaume Devré is a closeted gay man in Paris in 1900. He is also extremely cranky and a bit authoritative, so I had less sympathy for him than I’d expected. He’s still an interesting character: torn between his drive for truth and justice, and his own necessary deception.

His investigation of a murdered man almost immediate takes him to “the infamous, most celebrated woman in all of Paris…known as La Balise.” La Balise, aka Lucie-Geneviéve Madeleine, is a famous courtesan, and treated by the media, at least, as a cross between a super model and a rock star. She has a Past, that is alluded to, but not explained, and is also an utter delight!

The mystery itself takes many twists and turns, left me guessing the entire time, and is satisfyingly scandalous in the end. There were also enough teasers of the various characters that I have high hopes of future mysteries featuring the detective and the courtesan, not to mention the terse American forensic pathologist they both admire.

Since no sequel has yet appeared, here’s a recommendation for another historical novel featuring gay protagonists, though much different in pretty much every way:

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

By Mackenzi Lee

Gentlemens_GuideI think this might be the type of YA romance that we will see more of, written by and for the millennial generation, and I have to say, I’m here for it! Though it is set in Regency England (and Europe, as the main characters embark on their Grand Tour), it to an extent anachronistically inclusive of diverse races and sexualities. I had a moment of GenX crankiness over it until I realized that no one (including me) is reading this book to get a detailed historical look into the time. It is sweet, flirty, swash-buckling, and just a whole lot of fun!

Strong Spirits

By Alice Duncan

Strong_SpiritsUgh, I can’t believe that it is March already. I’ve been reading a ton, but haven’t done a great job of actually writing the reviews. I’m still having a great time with BookBub’s recommendations, getting most of my recent books from them, and have a fair number back-logged that I need to review. (Which is good, because I’ve also been reading a fair amount of smut, which will not get reviewed here.)

Strong Spirits, from BookBub, of course, is very much a first-person narrative by protagonist Daisy Gumm, who is poor but spunky, with an extremely chatty narration. Having married young to her childhood sweetheart, who returns from World War I paraplegic, she ekes out a living as a spiritualist and fortuneteller for the wealthy communities in Pasadena.

The novel makes a slow start, with a lot of background on Daisy, her husband, her work, her neighborhood, etc., but she is likable and funny, with decided opinions on all sorts of things, and her husband is (somewhat) sympathetic.

All of this changes, however, once the mystery occurs and the primary detective is introduced, and Daisy appears to lose her damn mind. She takes such an instant dislike to the detective that she’s like a dog going after a bone every time he appears.

I have a suspicion that he will become a romantic figure in sequels (I see the writing on the wall for her poor frail husband), and suspect that these early scenes are supposed to be witty repartee, but Daisy instead comes across as having a huge, unjustified chip on her shoulder that is really hard to empathize with.

Honestly, by the end of the book, I was so fed up with her that she felt like one of those people who seem great when you first meet them because they are so open and out-going, but then you realize that was them being shy and reserved, and once they are actually comfortable with you, they are so extreme that they try your last nerve. I’m cutting off all contact now, though, so I won’t know.

The Power and Exit West

The end of 2017 and beginning of 2018 have been rough, y’all. Not good at all. And since comfort reading is one of my big coping strategies, I have spent the past few months reading mostly romance novels, Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries (still working my way through all those, Murder Must Advertise was loads of fun), and the occasional true crime story. But recently two well-reviewed literary books snuck in that both tell stories about a world much like our with just the slightest fantastical shift. They were also both beautifully written and slightly terrifying, which might be a good fit for all our feelings in this deepest, darkest winter?

The Power is also a good fit for our current #MeToo culture, since it is based on the idea that one day, women all over the world suddenly begin to manifest the ability to shock/attack people with electricity. If women have no reason to fear men physically, what could happen? In this story, piece by piece, place by place, this shift begins to upend society. The narration moves between characters, including women who are able to exercise this power in their lives, and men who begin to understand what it is like to live in fear. The premise is excellent, but what makes this book so genius is the subtlety with which the author approaches all the possible different ways that this change in the power balance affects politics, sex, school kids, the workplace, and every other bit of society.  The Power has gotten all sorts of accolades in the U.K., where it originally came out, which was honestly surprising to me because it feels so subversive I can’t believe it’s had such mainstream popularity. Also, the framing conceit of the book–letters between scholars talking about a draft manuscript that makes up the bulk of the book–is just absolutely genius and may raise some painful memories for any women who have spent much time with men in the workplace.

Exit West has also received rapturous press and was on a number of Best of 2017 lists, and it was all deserved. This story revolves around a couple in an unnamed Middle Eastern country who are falling in love and starting a tentative relationship right as their country is beginning to destabilize and eventually descend into war. (The parallels with Syria feel unavoidable.) At the same time, all around the world, an unexplained phenomenon is occurring where suddenly a normal door can begin to open to some random location in another part of the world. Now that people can move around the world without crossing borders, countries have lost control over immigration and the world is in upheaval. The book is clearly making statements about refugees and political states in the modern world, but for me the more haunting part of the story was the descriptions of the small, incremental changes in a society that can lead to one day waking up in a war zone. While the plot is heavy, the writing here is very light and poetic and the book is not overly long, so it doesn’t feel like a burden to read.

Neither of these is what I would call a comfort book, and neither of them made me feel particularly more hopeful about the future. But if you’re looking to be captivated by a story and slightly horrified about what the world could come to, one of these might be for you.