A Vineyard Killing/Murder at a Vineyard Mansion, by Philip R. Craig

These books were just what I wanted after a stressful week: familiar characters, a much-loved place, and a mildly challenging story. Some of the mysteries I love have a powerful emotional effect; others exercise my mind with their complicated puzzles. But sometimes I only want a comfortable read.

These mysteries feature J. W. Jackson, former Boston policeman turned fisherman. Marriage to Zee motivated him to convert the fishing shack where he lived into a real home for her and their children. So he is justifiably incensed when, in the first of these books, a real estate developer from the South threatens to take it away from him. After only a few pages, I realised I'd read A Vineyard Killing before, but went ahead and read it again anyway. Donald Fox is using predatory tactics to cheat long-time Martha's Vineyard residents out of their land. When someone fires on Donald and his brother, J.W. gets involved.

J.W. is a joy to hang around with. Easy-going but unafraid to stand up for what he thinks is right, he carves his own path. I love his sometimes acerbic observations of life on the island and the various layers of its inhabitants.

In the second book, J.W. looks into two murders among the wealthiest stratum of Vineyard society. In his casual way, J.W. distinguishes between the old rich who tend their farms in worn clothes and the new rich who throw up the most ostentatious mansions they can get away with. One of these partially-constructed mansions has been vandalised and then the security guard hired in response by the owner tumbles over a cliff. To solve these crimes, J.W. has to break open the secret lives the islands most privileged residents.

Craig's descriptions of Martha's Vineyard and the lives of its permanent residents make me feel as though I too live there, as though I know the island far better than I do. I love the descriptions of fishing trips, drives around the island pursuing clues and suspects, and all the small chores J.W. undertakes at home, such as fixing dinner for his family. Each book has a few recipes in the back. They are nothing fancy, but “All delicious”.

The Angel's Game, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Zafón's first book The Shadow of the Wind entranced me from the very first page. I was mesmerized by his imaginative descriptions of post-World War II Barcelona and the story of the boy, Daniel, who sets out to find books by an author whose book, also titled The Shadow of the Wind, has taken possession of him. However, it seems that someone is systematically finding and destroying all copies of books by this author. Utterly charmed by the imaginary place described in the opening pages, I probably would have forgiven the author anything after that. Reading that first page was like falling in love.

Often editors and agents say they only need to read one page of a novel to know if it is worth continuing, a claim that aroused my skepticism until I attended a workshop at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. The workshop was run by, if I remember correctly, a professor from the Humber School and one of the IFOA authors. All of us were given a packet containing the first page from each of our novels, and together we read each one and decided if we wanted to read on or not.

To my surprise, I found myself giving a thumbs-up or -down without any hesitation. One page was enough to decide. Mulling over this experience, I recalled the few, precious times when I have fallen in love with a book after the first page. Sometimes it is just the gorgeous writing that makes me stop and read more slowly to savor the prose. Cold Mountain and Deborah Crombie's Dreaming of the Bones come to mind. Sometimes it's the humor, as in Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum. And just as one may, instead of falling in love at first sight, find love developing unexpectedly over time, there are stories that have grown on me, such as Out Stealing Horses and Stoner.

However, this second book from Zafón, so eagerly anticipated, disappointed me. I found the story hard to follow. Rambling, surreal, and disconnected, this prequel to the first book tells the story of young David Martin who wants to be a writer. A retelling of Great Expectations, the author pounds the point home by having a friendly bookseller give young David a copy and then reminding us by bringing up the Dickens book again at intervals throughout the story. David is helped by his older, wealthier friend, Pedro, first to a newspaper job and then to a contract with a publisher of pulp novels. He moves into a long-abandoned tower, a Gothic monstrosity where he's wanted to live ever since he was a child, and buckles down to his writing, trying to meet the absurd deadlines demanded by his publisher. Then a mysterious French publisher with the Italian name of Corelli approaches him with an offer that seems too good to be true.

The descriptions of Barcelona's fantastic streets and graveyards are wonderful, but the twists and turns of the story struck me as contrived. They appeared to be deliberate complications padding the book instead of growing organically from the characters themselves. The first half of the book seemed more internally consistent and interesting, while the second half, with murders piling up and the supernatural elements taking over, became a jumble of increasingly violent and bizarre scenes. Also, David is not an attractive narrator, full of the passions of youth, but also youth's self-centered cruelty.

My discontent makes me wonder if I really liked that first book. Perhaps I simply fell in love with the title and that opening image. Second books are often disappointing, perhaps because they are pushed into print without the long gestation of that first book, lovingly revised over and over during the long years of seeking a publisher. But it is equally possible that I am the one who has changed, and this book is not so different from the first. Certainly coming into this book my expectations were much greater.

Drood, by Dan Simmons

In 1865, a train carrying Charles Dickens, his young inamorata, and her mother suffered a serious accident near Staplehurst involving a broken viaduct. Many passengers were killed and many more injured. As he tries to help the survivors, Dickens becomes aware of a gaunt, black-clad man also ministering to the survivors.

From this first meeting, Dickens is obsessed with the mysterious Drood who seems to possess supernatural powers. Wilkie Collins, the narrator of this book who notes with regret that people always call him Wilkie and never Collins, begins to worry that the balance of his friend's mind has been affected. The two are not just friends, but also collaborators and rivals. No matter what kudos Wilkie receives, he can never seem to surpass Dickens, who calls himself the Inimitable. Dickens receives all the credit for their joint work and remains unperturbed by Wilkie's The Moonstone outselling Dickens's own books.

Admittedly, horror stories and tales of the supernatural are not my cup of tea, but I found the Drood storyline boring and unconvincing. Perhaps it is Drood's over-the-top facial disfigurement—so grotesque that Drood has to wear a veil over his face to walk among people—that caused my suspension of disbelief to collapse. The truly terrifying monsters are those who smile at you from a perfectly pleasant face, like the high school principal in Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. Another alternative might have been never to reveal the carved-up face that lies behind Drood's veil, as in the Hawthorne story. But to lay it all out immediately in monstrous detail and then add the revolting descriptions of Drood's underground realm, well, it was too much for me to swallow, even knowing Wilkie Collins's reputation for sensationalism.

Although the Drood storyline is meant to be central to the book, it is actually not necessary. A fine and far more interesting book could have simply focused on the relationship between the two writers: by far the best part of the book, in my opinion. I also very much liked the period details and atmosphere, and admired the author's research. However, too often I felt that incidents and descriptions peripheral to the story were jammed in because the author wanted to include everything he'd learned.

Quite simply, the book is too long. At nearly 800 pages, it is not only uncomfortable to hold but wearies the reader (this one, anyway) with much repetition. There are many descriptions of the normal dinners of the time, each easily five times as much food as we expect, even with today's inflated portions. There are many descriptions, too, of Wilkie's opium habit, his cravings, the quantities he ingests, the resulting tortured dreams. These are but two examples.

I came away feeling that the author was being self-indulgent. Yes, cutting is hard, but necessary. It's also true that books of the era in which this book is set were often quite long but they were published in installments (serialised in magazines) or in multiple volumes. This huge lump of text is hard to digest. Simmons does a masterful job of varying the pace, maintaining the momentum, and keeping the story interesting, but it would have been a much better book at half its length.

I looked forward to this book, having read two Wilkie Collins masterpieces in recent years, as well as The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher about the detective who is in this book called Inspector Field. The writing is too good for me to be disappointed, but I was certainly ready for the book to be over long before the end. I'm not put off by long books—I even reread War and Peace earlier this year—but felt this one could have been tighter.

The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunnits, edited by Mike Ashley

I like mysteries and I like short stories, yet I've been disappointed in the dozen or so mystery short stories I've read. Their fine plotting, characterization and setting draw me in, but their abrupt endings always take me by surprise, without the twists and false trails and doublings-back that I expect from a mystery. The fault was clearly with me and not with the stories themselves, so I decided to adjust my expectations by reading this collection of 26 mystery short stories.

I further handicapped myself by choosing historical mysteries, which I tend to be wary of. Writing stories set in the distant past requires considerable research and scholarship in order to include period-appropriate details and avoid anachronisms.

However, I'm pleased to report that the stories in this collection are very good and have persuaded me to become a fan of mystery short stories. All of the authors represented here are adept at sketching a character with very few words and drawing the reader into the story quickly, often through our sympathy with the main character. The cast of characters in each is necessarily limited, so sometimes the solution is not so much who did it, but how or why.

Another of my quirks is that I dislike stories that use real people as characters. It seems like a failure of imagination to me, a case of the author taking a shortcut by using some historical personage instead of dreaming up his or her own characters. It also seems to me unfair to the people themselves, making up tales about them when they are no longer around to defend themselves, as Milan Kundera argues so eloquenty in Immortality. Unfortunately, several of these stories fall into this trap, featuring Heroditus, Hildegarde of Bingen, Chaucer, and Ben Franklin.

However, reading a very good story featuring Leonardo Fibonacci, the great mathematician, made me reconsider. Perhaps including such relatively unknown figures may encourage readers to learn more about the real person and thus help keep their names alive, just as—I confess—reading Classics Illustrated comics as a child predisposed me to enjoy these books when I came to read the originals.

Perhaps this is as good a time as any to confront more of my entrenched likes and dislikes, before I harden completely into an old curmudgeon. I will certainly be looking for other books by the authors I've enjoyed here.